Friday, July 8, 2011

The Rainbow Journey of Rev. Robert Weiss, S.J.

Father Robert Weiss, or Father Bob to those who know him, grew up in North St. Louis, the second of four children. His father was the owner of a hardware store and Father Bob worked at this father's store during his childhood and adolescence. "I think my father would have liked for me and my brother to have taken over the store," Father Bob said. However, Father Bob focused on his studies in high school, attending a Jesuit school on a scholarship. "This was during the Great Depression, so being able to go to high school with the help of a scholarship was very helpful to my family," he said. He enjoyed high school and thrived academically. In 1943, at the age of 18, he entered into the Army about to embark on one of his most difficult lessons.

After boot camp at Jefferson Barracks, he was selected to continue his education at the University of Kansas with the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). "I was only there seven and half months when the whole training group was reassigned to the Rainbow Division," Father Bob said. "So, I was off to Camp Gruber."

He was assigned to a heavy weapons company. One day his duties, while the other men in the company did field training, were to stay behind and act as a fireguard. "I had to clean the toilets and do other maintenance," Father Bob remembered. While he was doing these tasks one day, a sergeant from personnel showed up. "He asked me if I could type and write in shorthand. I really couldn't do either, but he said that I would do. From then on, I did all the paper work for our company and the first sergeant," he said.

Father Bob said that his company was part of a wave of replacement soldiers that was sent over to Europe in an attempt to fill the void of those seasoned soldiers that were fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. When they reached Strasbourg, Father's Bob's boss left his assignment for officer training. His vacancy in the 222nd Company M was filled by Father Bob. At the age of 20, Father Bob became the youngest first sergeant in the regiment and was suddenly in charge of 150 men. "I was in charge of keeping everyone in line and giving them things to do," Father Bob said. "Mostly, I felt like I had to keep everyone safe."

Father Bob remembered that the first mail he received from home was on Christmas Day 1944. "It sure was a nice distraction to get a little piece of home," he said of receiving the letters. "Getting reminders that life was still going on at home kept many of us going during tough times." Father Bob said it was hard missing a lot of the comforts from home, including something so simple as taking a shower. "I think it was 73 days before we were able to take a shower after arriving in Europe," he said. "The Germans could probably smell us!"

The war progressed, and Father Bob and Company M continued to move through southern Germany and were near Austria when the war was finally declared over. "We were all just so thrilled that the war was over," he said. It was after the war, before his company moved to Vienna, that Father Bob was able to take leave to England. "That was a lot of fun," he remembered.

When Father Bob returned home from the Army, he followed a calling he'd had since high school and entered studies for the priesthood. He received his PhD in education and educational psychology in 1964 from the University of Minnesota.

Father Bob built a career in education administration, as Dean of Rockhurst College (now University) 1964 to 1972, President of St. Louis University High School, 1972 to 1977, and then back to Rockhurst University as President, 1977 to 1988. He has also leant his time to a variety of community organizations, serving on many boards both nationally and now internationally. Father Bob travels to Belize a few times a year as a member of the board at St. John's College. He has served terms as president and national chaplain of the Rainbow Veterans Association.

"I remember we had stopped for a bite to eat one day in a village," Father Bob said during his annual Catholic Mass at the National 42nd Reunion in New Orleans this past July. "I saw a buddy of mine sitting on the steps of a building and I joined him." As Father Bob walked away from him, a mortar went off, killing his buddy. "I had a hard time understanding why this had not happened to me, and why I had been spared," Father Bob said quietly. "In the end though, I had to rely on my faith to get me through." During his time in the 42nd Rainbow, Father Bob was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantry Badge and two Battle Stars.

It was that same faith that helped Father Bob recover from open heart surgery on May 7, 2010. "I wasn't feeling so well before the surgery, but I do feel great now," he declared as he sat in the hospitality room at the hotel in New Orleans with a big smile on his face as he mingled with his Army buddies. For anyone who has had the privilege of knowing Father Bob knows that his smile never seems out of place. "I am just so happy to be here."

In August 2010, Father Bob celebrated his 86th birthday and, with his health in good shape, he has no plans on slowing down.


The Rainbow Journey of Bud Gahs

"I don't know if you want to interview me," a modest Bud Gahs told me when I asked to interview him at last year's 42nd Rainbow Reunion in Ocean City, NJ. After I insisted that I did in fact want to interview him, he shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "Okay, let's do it," he said. In our two-hour interview I learned many interesting things about Bud. First of all, Bud is his nickname. His formal name is Lockered; he is the father of six children; he's been flying airplanes for over 45 years; he has owned numerous greenhouses and is an expert on plants.

Before the Rainbow

Bud grew up in Baltimore. He graduated high school at age 16. The day after graduation was his 17th birthday; the following day he started working at a Baltimore factory. The factory produced airplanes, something that Bud has loved since he was five years old. "I was bit by the flying bug when I was young and it never went away," Bud said. It would be Bud's job to arm the airplanes with machine guns. "We made the whole bomber at the factory," Bud explained. "Things were done with efficiency. In a time of trouble, people in this country united. It really was a glorious time for this nation." Bud worked at the factory for over a year and a half.

When he was drafted in 1943, Bud figured that with his aviation knowledge he would be working with airplanes. "Instead, I found myself in the Army and on my way to Kansas to be in the horse cavalry! I had never even been on a horse. I think I rode a mule once," he laughed. He went through a 17-week training before completing nine months of ASTP. "The program was then shut down. That is when my Rainbow journey began," he said.

Bud's Trail of the Rainbow

Bud was first assigned to a rifle company and was later transferred to the 222nd Anti-Tank Company. "The anti-tank was smaller than a rifle company," Bud explained. "We had a truck but it was to transport a gun and ten people." He was a driver in his squad because of his mechanical skills. "I drove the truck that pulled the gun," he said. That gun was a 57 mm gun. "It was similar to a cannon, only it was a large rifle," Bud said. "Our major job once we were overseas was to fire on enemy machine guns or fight off their tanks. We could fire long distances and hold off the enemy long enough for our guys to get in or out of their situation."

Despite his job as a truck driver, he still found time for his beloved flying. "I took private lessons while I trained at Fort Gruber," Bud said. "I was ready to fly solo but I was sent overseas before I could do it." He was sent to Europe in November 1944 with two other infantry regiments.

The USS Alexander

Bud remembered being on the USS Alexander for about three weeks. He also remembered the seas being continuously rough. "There were a lot of people on that ship. There were many rows of bunks and they were stacked eight to ten high." Bud said the bunks were pieces of canvas laid over pipes. "You had a rifle and a bag in that with you. Nice and cozy," he grinned. Bud's bunk was near the top of the stack for obvious reasons. "I didn't get seasick and I knew I would be okay up there. But, I didn't want anyone getting sick above me!" However, despite having a top bunk, Bud didn't spend much time in it. "The smell below deck was awful. I didn't mind sitting up on the top deck with my coat on. It was cold but it smelled better up there."

The other reason he was never in his bunk long was because of the threat of mines. "When you were in your bunk you were about 20 feet underwater. If we hit a mine, we would be in a lot of trouble. That alone was enough of a reason for me to wander to other parts of the ship," he said.

Bud said the trip overseas was the start of what he could only summarize as an adventure. "That ship was just the start. The bow did not go just up and down. It went in a continuous circle. Then one day, we landed."

Introduction to War

The USS Alexander pulled into Marseille, France in late November of 1944. Bud remembered they all traveled by truck about 20 miles outside of the city for supplies and equipment. He soon resumed his truck driving responsibilities. It wasn't long before he was acquainted with the raging war around him.

"As a truck driver, you are a literal moving target. You have 300 rounds of 57 mm ammunition immediately behind you. That can be a bit scary to comprehend," he said.

The House

One day, in the cold of winter of 1945, German forces in Schweghausen cut off Bud and his squad. Trying to find cover, Bud drove the truck behind a house. His squad quickly found safety from the raining bullets in the house. They ran up the stairs to the second floor and shot through the blown out windows of the house. A close friend and Bud were firing out a window. His friend was too near the window when a sniper shot him. This changes a lot of things for Bud.

Eventually, after hours of shooting, the Germans rushed into the house. They shot through the ceiling above them with rounds and rounds of bullets. They knew the Americans were trapped upstairs. "They thought they got us all," Bud said, "and soon they left. I was just relieved that they didn't think to set the house on fire on their way out." Bud's squad lost two soldiers that day and a few others were injured. "At first I was scared," Bud said. "But, then I knew there was nothing to do but survive. The fear left me and then I suddenly became more attentive and efficient. Not just me but my friends did the same." Bud received the bronze star for his action that day.

The Kitchen

Early one morning, one of Bud's squad members awoke to some noise in the kitchen of the house they were staying in. Bud's friend was a 36-year-old Chicagoan and milkman with the last name of Hickey. He came dashing into the kitchen and was soon face to face with two Germans with raised rifles. Hickey surrendered his rifle. In telling the rest of Hickey's story, Bud said there was a good German and a bad German. "The bad German wanted to kill Hickey right there, but the good German talked him out of doing that. He convinced the bad German to take Hickey as a prisoner and they started off towards the woods," he said. While in the woods, a shell killed the bad German. The good German, Bud said, gave his dead comrade's gun to Hickey. They decided that if they came across American troops first, Hickey would turn the good German over as a prisoner. If they stumbled across German forces first, he would do the same for Hickey. This plan saved both of their lives. Unfortunately, their plan didn't work, Bud said. Bullets from American tanks killed the good German.

"Hickey was a father to three girls when he was drafted. He thought he was too old to go to war," Bud said. "When he was with us in Germany, he always said he thought he would be sent home at any time because he had kids. Like the good German, he always was hopeful." Hickey did make it home and went back to his life as a milkman in Chicago. He and Bud kept in touch for many years, up until Hickey died about 20 years ago.


On April 29, 1945, Bud rode past Dachau. "We were assigned to the woods next to the camp. When the camp was liberated some prisoners escaped into the woods and they (chain of command) wanted to make sure they were real prisoners and not SS," he said. While clearing the woods, they heard rustling in some bushes. Bud had his rifle lifted and was ready to shoot when a man crawled out and started kissing his feet. "I almost shot him because I was so startled," he said. "There was a language barrier but I was very moved when they kissed my boots. He was so thankful." Bud said. "I was shocked when I saw him. He was so desperate."

Dachau was a surprise to all of them, Bud said. And it wasn't until a few days after the liberation that the realization of it all set in. "We'd heard that people were in concentration camps, but no one could have imagined it was this bad," Bud said. He never wandered through the front gates of the camp until 1972.

Bud had gone back to Germany with his wife as part of a greenhouse tour. They had been traveling all over Europe analyzing various types of greenhouses, when he decided to make a detour to Dachau. "I remember there was a green lawn and benches and on one of the benches was a man. We sat next to him and he told us he had been a prisoner there. He had come back for some reason. Who knows why he had wanted to come back. I just kept thinking that he looked so old, but we probably were the same age."

It was on that trip that he decided to rent a car and go back to the house in Schweighausen. The house was still there, Bud said. The only difference was that it was completely repaired and there was a fence around it. He spoke to some neighbors of the house and they told him they thought a former Nazi SS guard lived in the house. Bud walked up the path to the house's front door and knocked. The man who answered spoke broken English but denied Bud's request to come into the house. Bud asked if he could walk around the outside of the house, and he was told no again. "As I walked away from the house, all those memories came flooding back to me. It was just all like I had remembered it," he said.


Bud drove trucks until the end of the war. "It wasn't a bad thing," he said, "I didn't have to walk much." He spent time in Austria and he said his memories of the Austrian people are that they all had such great spirits. "I liked them very much," he said. With the war ended, he took advantage of the extra time on his hands. He traveled when he could. He went to England and Paris and took some short trips around Austria. "Everyone was just waiting to go home." And when Bud was allowed to go home, he headed back to Maryland.

Life After War

After settling back into civilian life, Bud went back to college. He had been attending John Hopkins University before heading overseas with the Rainbow. He'd thought he would be an engineer. However, he'd had a change of heart. He decided to attend the University of Maryland and pursue a career in horticulture. In his spare time, Bud was asked to be a Boy Scout leader, an organization he had belonged to as a boy. Through a fellow Boy Scout leader, Bud met his future wife, Thurley.

Bud went on to own numerous greenhouses. His specialty was cut flowers and that evolved over the years to include potted plants. He worked in the greenhouse industry for 47 years.

Another interesting fact I learned about Bud during our interview was that he is a local Baltimore celebrity. According to Bud, a local television station interviewed him on how to take care of plants before the cold weather hit. The initial interview was such a hit, that when the holidays rolled around, Bud was asked to talk about poinsettias. He was then called by the station and asked if he would do an appearance on a show called Baltimore At Ten, one of the first "talk shows."

"They wanted me talk about flowers every Monday for 3 to 5 minutes. I could design my own segments. I agreed to do it," he said. Because Bud joined the Actors Guild at the persuasion of the station's union, he was paid $38 a minute. "Not a bad job," Bud said with a laugh.

He did the show for about two years, until it was pushed off by Oprah Winfrey's talk show on another Baltimore station. "Everyone watched her and Baltimore At Ten went out of business. I guess losing out to Oprah isn't too bad."

Rainbow Today

Until October of 2010, Bud had been the president of the Eastern Region Chapter for the past two years. "I enjoy coming to these reunions," he said.

He has been driving up from Maryland to attend the Ocean City reunion for years. Yet, it was on this particular trip that he and Father Bob Weiss, ironically saw an anti-tank gun in New Jersey. "It was in front of a park, I suppose it was for a memorial. I haven't seen one of those in 60 years," Bud said. "And I saw one yesterday on my way up here to the Rainbow."


Jim and Trudy Clemons: Finding Love in War

A young soldier stationed in Austria during the occupation after World War II was riding on a street car with a buddy. They were on their way to a USO concert and had two extra tickets. As fate would have it, two lovely Austrian girls came on the street car. The soldier and his buddy work up the nerve to ask them to the show. And the rest is history. Listening to 42nd Rainbower Jim Clemons tell the story of how he and his wife, Trudy, met more than 65 years ago in Vienna resembles that of a movie script. But this script is not fiction.

When Jim met Trudy on that street car, he was a long way away from his hometown of Newton, Iowa. His journey to Vienna started after his 18th birthday, in September of 1944, when he was drafted. Despite a possible farm deferment, and his father's encouragement to join the marines, Jim was inducted into the army at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. This was soon followed by infantry combat training at Camp Robinson, Ark. Jim recalled training on how to handle explosives, night exercises (often in the cold and wet Arkansas mud). There were long marches, night live fire exercises and watching the now classic film series "Why We Fight." After a brief leave back home in Iowa, Jim reported to Fort Meade in Maryland before being transferred to Camp Miles Standish near Boston. It was from Boston that Jim boarded the Mariposa, a Matson liner that sailed the Atlantic alone and not with the protection of a convoy.

Jim remembered an interesting event in the middle of the Atlantic while below decks watching a poker game. The submarine alert sounded and the water tight doors slammed shut. Nerves were rattled, but the poker game continued. When the all clear sounded, Jim recalled everyone sighing with relief. The first days of the voyage were stormy and many were sea sick in the tight quarters of the ship. The ten day trip ended in Marseilles, France. Everyone on the ship were trucked a few miles outside of Marseilles to a large camp called CP#2. There they remained for a few days before being transferred by rail boxcars to Worms, Germany. The war ended a few days after Jim's arrival in France.

En route to Worms, Jim recalls seeing hundreds of Wehrmacht prisoners being marched back into Germany. Living in a rolling boxcar with straw on the floor, duffle bag and rifle, with about two stops per day, was an interesting experience. Jim said that the three or four days he spent on the train was nothing that his Iowa upbringing couldn't handle. "We had to be creative in passing our time, and if any of us had to use the bathroom, well, we became friends quickly," Jim said over the phone from his home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. However, Jim wouldn't start his personal trail of the Rainbow until late June of 1945, after his stint with the 103rd division in the Vorarlberg region of Austria ended.

Meanwhile, Trudy was growing up in Vienna with her two sisters and brother. Despite a city plagued with war wounds, she recalled Vienna's beauty and it always being a city of intriguing people and cultures. "It was a confusing time though," she admitted. "People we knew were disappearing and friends were shot. But that is war."

Before the start of the war Trudy was attending business school. It was eventually closed. She was ordered to work in a factory that had been converted from producing pots and pans to war production. "I did different things at the factory. I was a teenager and I wasn't serious about the job I was given," she said. "I was just so disappointed that the school was closed." At one point, Trudy was told to spend her shift inspecting tubes meant for the completion of rockets. She was to put the tubes into buckets of water to see if there were any holes. Trudy admitted that she spent more time talking to other workers than looking for air bubbles. One day her supervisor called her off the production line and into his office. "He asked me why I was making so many mistakes. He accused me of being a spy." She said that even after all these years, she can still remember how afraid she was when her superior told her she would be going to concentration camp. "He was going to fill out the paper work and I was going to be sent there right away. Then the cuckoo sounded on the radio." The cuckoo, Trudy explained, was the air raid alarm. When the alarmed sounded that day, Trudy's superior told her they would finish the paper work after the raid. As he and the other factory workers went to the shelter, Trudy ran home and never looked back. "That alarm saved me that day and thankfully, they never came looking for me. There were bigger worries than me." After the war Jim, ironically, would stand many guard duties in that same factory, as it was used to store tons of dried beans and vegetables rationed out by US Forces to feed starving Viennese citizens in the American and perhaps Allied Zones.

When Jim and Trudy met on that street car in February of 1946, Vienna was experiencing a new sort of war. Jim described a Vienna involved in a power struggle under the occupation authority of Four Great Powers: France, British, Soviet and America . There was major tension between the Four Powers, which often erupted in violent incidents. The Viennese struggled to recover their economy with severe shortages of food and medicine. But, Jim said despite all the setbacks and hardships, the Viennese people were always hopeful for a better future. "People were scared," Trudy echoed, "but we were trying to live our lives and get back to some kind of normal."

Keeping with that mindset, Jim recalled a particularly lovely summer day in August of 1946. His stint with the army was coming to an end and he would soon be assigned to the Headquarters US Forces Austria as a USG civilian employee. Jim, Trudy, Trudy's friend Gretel, and Gretel's boyfriend, set out to enjoy a day in the hills of Nussdorf (located in an outlying district of Vienna). It was easy to see the Russian Zone from Nussdorf. The foursome wandered through orchards and vineyards on a sunny Sunday morning along the wide bank of the Danube in the American Zone of Occupation. They decided it would be a perfect day for sunbathing on the manmade inlet and port running parallel to the Danube called Kuchelauer Hafen. The beach, located in the American Zone, was used frequently by the residents of the area. "Spending the day on the beach, what could go wrong with that?" Jim asked.

When they arrived at the beach, they noticed two Soviet river gun boats tied up on the opposite bank, about 50 yards away. Jim recalled seeing Soviet personnel on board, wearing their traditional hats and long coats, and he decided to take a picture with his camera. "Let me say, I started to take a picture," Jim said. As he brought the camera out, there started a great commotion aboard both Soviet boats and the sailors started yelling and gesturing towards Jim and his friends. "Remember, this was a very politically heated time, and the Soviets were often easily excited and rambunctious," he said. The Soviets immediately mounted the guns aboard the boats and aimed two rather large guns directly at the foursome, along with automatic weapons. "I put the camera away," Jim said. Despite the uncomfortable situation, the group decided to put on their bathing suits and enjoy the day on the beach. After all, they were on the American side and the Soviets on theirs.

This wouldn't be Jim's last encounter with the Soviets while living in Vienna . One afternoon, he and Trudy attempted to get off a street car when a Soviet soldier put a gun in Jim's gut and told them to get back on the car. They did. " Vienna was sort of like the wild west," Jim said. "Relations between the Russians and the US were not friendly and it made it difficult to do ordinary things, like riding a street car." Trudy echoed Jim's opinion saying: "And I was involved with the Americans and that made it dangerous for me and my family. I started to think that I may have to leave Vienna." In 1948, just before Trudy and Jim married, one incident was enough to convince them that they needed to in fact leave. Trudy was walking down a street when she noticed a man taking her picture. It was a possibility that the Soviets knew that Jim was then working for the CIC and was often times disguised as a Viennese man riding a bicycle behind Soviet lines. He would wear a suit belonging to Trudy's father and with the help of Trudy, learned the Viennese dialect. "When Trudy told me, my first thought was that our pictures were in some office in Moscow. I knew we had to go," Jim said.

They left Vienna and went to Iowa, and then to Washington, DC, where Jim joined the Foreign Service. In 1954, Jim received his first overseas assignment, moving Trudy and their two sons to Rome. They went on to live in Sicily, Cyprus, Beirut, and Bonn, Germany, then in 1975 it was off to Monrovia, Liberia to name a few of the places Jim worked or they visited. Their daughter Karen was born before they went to Bonn. She graduated from high school in Monrovia – the American International School – where students of some 16 different nationalities also attended.

Living overseas was often an adventure. While living in Cyprus in February of 1964, Trudy and the children were evacuated to Beirut, then called the "Paris of the Middle East", after the American Embassy Nicosia was bombed by explosive devices at about 9 p.m. one evening. When Jim arrived home in the morning, after a long and chaotic night, he found Trudy and the children packed and ready to leave. "They needed to send us away for our safety," Trudy said. "We were only allowed to take clothes in a few suitcases." As Trudy and the children were about to board the Panam evacuation flight to Beirut in late afternoon of that hectic day Jim gave Trudy the box of Whitman's Valentine's Day chocolates he had surreptitiously removed from their quarters as he went back to work that morning. Every Valentine's Day that very same Whitman box, fresh chocolates, of course, grace their dining room table. Trudy and the children had to stay in Beirut while Jim remained in Cyprus until April of 1964. Trudy remained in Beirut until the two boys finished their school in late May, then they returned to the U.S. After a few months in Washington, Jim received orders to Germany. "Every couple of years we were off to some place new," Jim said. "It made for exciting times," Trudy said. "The children enjoyed living overseas too. Our family made friends with USG civilian and military personnel all over the world."

In 1974, Jim finally completed his degree from the University of Maryland and then the family was sent to Africa in 1975. Jim retired from the Foreign Service in 1979. His retirement was short lived; he went on to have a career as a logistics management specialist and tech writer on challenging and interesting defense department contracts

Starting in the 1960s when he was on assignment in Nicosia , he filled what spare time he had as an actor, gracing the stage in productions such as "Three Men and a Horse" and later, "Our Town." Acting, like writing, was something that has always given Jim great joy. As a youngster in Newton , Iowa, Jim was fascinated with Hollywood icons Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth. Jim's mother, a trained schoolteacher, passed her love of music onto Jim and his younger brother and sister. "I loved reading and listening to music. I loved history," Jim said. "And I also enjoyed driving a tractor." For Jim, acting and doing shows at first was a bit tedious. He worried he would forget his lines. But once he stepped foot on stage, his worries seemed to disappear. "It's another world on stage. The other actors, everyone just covers everyone else. Like the Rainbow, it is a like a family."

And for Trudy and Jim, the Rainbow has become part of their extended family. "It is always so nice seeing everyone at all the gatherings," Trudy said. Jim, who is the RDVMF President/Memorials Officer, agrees with Trudy. "I like staying involved in the Rainbow organization. I think I would be very bored without it. I think it is better to be doing things than to not be doing things."

As for the soldier and the girl he met on the street car, they have returned to Vienna many times. "I try to get Trudy home every so often," Jim said. And her home has changed since the couple fled in 1948. During their assignment in Africa, Jim and Trudy took a month's holiday in Vienna. "It was nice to live like a Viennese again," Jim chuckled. "It was nice to have Trudy's family nearby. We always made it a point to visit." He said that while he was in the army, he remembered a flack tower in the middle of Vienna, a large, above-ground,
anti-aircraft gun blockhouse used to defend against Allied air raids during the war. "During that particular visit, he said he and Trudy were interested to learn that the flack tower was now being used to house offices for the Austrian government and military. "It just shows you that life goes on, even after war," Trudy said.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ben Viola, 42nd Rainbower has passed over the rainbow: 1918-2009

On October 4, 2009, my grandfather, a 42nd Rainbow Veteran, passed over the Rainbow. I wrote his obituary to be published in the Bergen Record tomorrow and Thursday. I wanted to share his story on this blog because I know my fellow Rainbow families would understand and appreciate all he did in his life. ~EMT

Bernard “Ben” Victor Viola, 91, passed away peacefully on October 4, 2009 after a long battle with dementia. He was born on August 6, 1918 in Fort Lee, NJ. Until the last years of his life, his was surrounded by love, laughter and family in his beloved home in Northvale, NJ. He took pride in the fact that the home he raised his children in with his wife of almost 70 years, Mathilda, he built from the ground up alongside his father, uncle and close friends. He would tell of his adventures of working at Alcoa Aluminum in Edgewater, NJ, where he retired as a tool and dye maker, and starting the Northvale Department of Public Works where he retired as Superintendent. People would listen with great interest as he reminisced about his years on the Northvale City Council and his usually funny boyhood memories involving his younger brother, Fred. Ben had a rare work ethic. He worked every day of his life, whether at the Rockland County Golf Course in his retirement years or mowing his lawn. His hands were never idle. He made tables out of crates, he was the go-to-guy for necklace tangles and he made lovely jewelry boxes. Ben created beautiful wooden hope chests for all of his daughters and granddaughters. Each trunk was put together with meticulous care and each was unique.

He spent World War II as a staff sergeant in the 42nd Rainbow Division 242 Company F. He was a modest man and never spoke of his heroics in the war until years later. He had close encounters with death, was awarded the Purple Heart, and witnessed many horrific days of war. His unit was one of the first liberators into the German concentration camp, Dachau. However, Ben was proud of his time in the Army. Later in life he reconnected with his Army buddies and attended biannual Rainbow reunions in Ocean City, NJ with his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. He also held many leadership positions within the Improved Order of Redmen New Jersey Organization, being a charter member of the Northvale Council.

Ben was a quiet man but had a dry sense of humor that he was never afraid to express. His smile would light up a room and his storytelling was compelling. He laughed easily. He only wore shirts with a breast pocket so his glasses were never far from reach. He would read the Sunday comic page to his youngest granddaughter in funny voices and always succeeded in making her laugh. He spoke fluent Italian and enjoyed eating Mathilda’s Italian cooking. He took joy in family dinners and sharing his wine with friends at his dinner table. He watched golf whenever it was on television, and played the sport whenever he had the opportunity.

Family was important to Ben and he was proud of his children and grandchildren. He was quick to write a note to a grandchild off at college and liked to chat with his family over the phone. He touched the lives of all that knew him and he will be missed every day by those he left behind. He joins his parents, Anthony and Alfonsina (Fevola) Viola, sister, Josephine DePolito and brother, Frederick Viola, in heaven. In addition to his wife, Mathilda (Paglierani), he is survived by four children: Patricia (Harry) Slagle, Mary Lynn Schatke, Donna (Chic) Marcason and Barry (Roseanne) Viola. And grandchildren: Andrew (Diane) Slagle, Christopher Schtake, Tommy (Laura) Schtake, Aimee (Ned) Gormley, Anne Marie (David) Cloutier, and Emily (Ryan) Tolmie. He is also survived by four great-grandchildren. He leaves behind many friends and his beloved cat.

Graveside services will be Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009 at Rockland Cemetery, Sparkill, NY at 11 am. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the National Alzheimer’s Association, 225 N. Michigan Ave., Fl. 17, Chicago, IL 60601 or to the 42nd Rainbow Division Veterans Memorial Foundation Scholarship Fund c/o Jon Janosik, 3398 Kingston Lane, Youngstown, OH 44511.

~EMT, October 5, 2009

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Death could be smelt billowing from inside Dachau. (Photo courtesy of Alfred Fontana)

Dachau Reflections:

Alfred Fontana was 28-years-old when he was drafted into the service in 1941. Prior to the war, Fontana worked at the Gordon Gin Plant in New Jersey. In 1937, he organized the plant into a union.

Fontana was one of the first groups of civilians to be drafted into the war. He accepted the fact he was drafted and wanted to do his part for his country.

He thought of the war as an adventure, but he never expected to see the nightmare he witnessed on April 29, 1945.

Fontana remembers vividly the horror of the Nazi's concentration camp, Dachau.

He remembers the cheering prisoners as the 42nd liberated the camp. He remembers seeing so many innocent prisoners dead and castoff aside as if they were no one's child or parent.

Dachau was a horror to all the young soldiers who witnessed it. It is a day that will forever live in Fontana's mind.

(All information gathered from 1/18/04 interview; Al Fontana passed away on December 27, 2008 at the age of 94.)
A young Viola went off to war never expecting to witness a horror such as Dachau.(Photo courtesy of Ben Viola)

Dachau Reflections:

For Ben Viola, Dachau was the ultimate horror.

He said he could to this day still smell the scent of the dead bodies in his nose. Viola was one of the first men into Dachau when his unit, CO F 222 Infantry, broke the gates of the concentration camp wide open.

He said his unit knew in advance that they were going to Dachau to save the people that were still barely alive. He said his unit was forced to kill many German officers in the process of liberating Dachau, but he said it was necessary to survive.

Many of the German officers who had performed the worst horrors possible had fled the camp the night before, leaving young German officers to defend it. One young German officer who had been captured told Viola that the Germans left behind in the camp knew they never had a chance against the prestigious Rainbow Division. He then begged not to be killed.

(All information gathered from 12/29/03 interview)
42nd Rainbow History: Dachau

Facing Evil:

The day had dawned and the Rainbow was in pursuit of evil as they crossed the Danube River. On April 29, 1945, the 42nd Rainbow Division came right into the path of the Nazi's Dachau concentration camp. It was on April 29, that Brig. General Linden and his party accepted the formal surrender of the Camp (Daly 96). Prior to the 42nd and the 45th Divisions attacking the camp, most of the German military and its officers had already left. Some German officers changed into prison garb to blend with the 33,000 inmates in an escape attempt (Daly 99).

Upon the confusion and excitement of seeing American troops, this initial group of inmates were pushed and shoved into an electrical compound fense. Several were killed. Other inmates wildly fought against remaining German guards clubbing, stoning and beating them to death (Daly 99). Other German soldiers were thrown in the moat and shot with their own guns.

These inmates had been starved, tortured and witnessed their families being murdered. To stop the frienzy Rainbowers had to shoot over the inmates heads (Daly 99).

The sights of this camp were beyond horror. Outside the camp proper, 1500 bodies were found in 50 boxcars.

These naked and barely clad inmates had been transferred from Camp Buchenwald. Due to lack of housing room, these inmates were left in the boxcars whithout food until they died. Rainbowers found only one survivor (Daly 99).

Scattered spirits

Prior to the German evacuation of its soldiers the night before, they killed important prisoners first then randomly others. Over 2,000 bodies were scattered everywhere. Inmates had stacked the bodies "like cordwood" (Daly 99).

This death camp opened in 1933. It systematically killed up to 200 men, women and children daily. They were stripped naked, led to gas chambers to die, their bodies thrown in a room to await cremation (Daly 99). However, the Nazis had no more coal and were unable to cremate the bodies (Daly 99).

They continued to either starve or gas the inmates. Now the bodies went to open graves or in the moat, causing a human dam of the water (Daly 99).


The stench was nauseating and overpowering everywhere. The hospital was a place where inmates died either on board beds with no linens or on the floor. Living conditions were worse than that of animals (Daly 99).

Within hours of liberation, medical personnel, food and supplies were brought in and the dead were buried. The camp was a living nightmare. It was worse than anything witnessed on the battlefield.

The average age of the Rainbower was 19 - 20. Tours of the camp were given so these young men would not forget. "Now I know why we are fighting," Rainbowers said (Daly 104).

-Written by EMT

Citations: Daly, Hugh C. 42nd Rainbow Infantry Division: History of World War II. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Army and Navy Publishing Building, 1946.
The Photo: The boxcars were filled with victims murdered by German officers. (Photo courtesy of 42nd Rainbower Al Fontana)