Should those who have served in the military share their experiences with those of us who have not?
This is a challenging issue because unless we learn about veterans’ service, we have a limited view of what war is and the prices it exacts.
Some report that their service in the military was the defining period of their lives. And there are those who steal valor, who claim to have served when they didn’t, who claim to have won medals for heroic actions when they were in their recliners having a cold one and watching television while America’s warriors were risking their lives in foreign lands.
Capt. Robert Tweed, 95, of Troy, Ohio, was a member of the 42nd Rainbow Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, and one of a team of three soldiers sent to Dachau after U.S. forces liberated this concentration camp on April 29, 1945. Captain Tweed shared his first-hand knowledge of this period in American history with members of Dr. Vivian Blevins’ class in modern American literature at Edison State Community College just prior to Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Student response was positive. Mindy Bach said in a note to Tweed, “You truly are a hero. You have no idea how much I greatly appreciated you coming to our American lit class and sharing your stories. I know that it must have been hard for you to do so, but it meant a lot to me, as well as made it a lot more real. I hope you continue to touch others with great truths.”
Tweed spoke of war in general and of a particular battle: “It’s like a ballgame. Who kills the most people wins the war.” Then, he spoke of an incident at Hatten after the Battle of the Bulge. He tells that his orders had been “Unload, dig in, watch out for the tanks, and hold at all costs.” Tweed refused to hold at all costs because as he says, “We had no resources to hold off the Germans. I didn’t want my men and me to be barbecued.” Tweed and his men retreated to a place where reinforcements could handle the assault, the last aggressive action of the Germans on the Western Front.
Eighteen-year-old Savannah Harvey was given a large dose of reality when Tweed spoke of his division commander, Harry Collins, sending him and two others to see the horrors of Dachau so that it could not be denied: “Fifty box cars of men stacked like cord wood, all dead except one man. A sign that translated said, ‘Work will make you free.’ A large room marked ‘Showers’ where prisoners were gassed and open pits where bodies were buried when there was a shortage of coal. Rooms full of hair, clothing, shoes of those who had been murdered.” Tweed paused and said, “I try to put those sights behind me.”
Harvey wrote to Tweed, “I want to thank you for coming to our class to speak about World War II. Even though Dachau might have been a very difficult subject to talk about, hearing you speak about it really put things into perspective about what it was like for those prisoners there.”
Of another war assignment to take 200 Eastern European women and children from St. Johan in Tirol, Austria, to Vienna, Tweed suddenly is amused. In addition to the transport, he had been told not to let the Russians steal the train’s engine. Each time the train stopped, some of those being transported jumped off and scattered. By the time Tweed reached his destination, 150 of those being transported had left the train and two boxcars were missing. Tweed says, “In the marshalling yards when the train needed to be turned, men assigned to that task uncoupled and stole boxcars. I had been told, ‘Don’t worry if you don’t get back with all the boxcars; just be sure to get back with the engine. So I stationed a soldier with a submachine gun in the engine compartment. Those attempting to take the engine pretended not to understand English, but they sure understood the machine gun.”
Of the Nuremburg Trials following the war, Tweed said, “You need some order in war and after. Those men being tried were guilty, and they needed to pay the price.”
Tweed was a marshal of a platoon of guards to maintain order at a trial in Salzburg of three Hungarians who had stoned and used a pitchfork on an American P-38 pilot who had parachuted from his plane after it was shot down in their small town. Local police sent the pilot to a POW camp where he died three days later. The three were sentenced to hang by a jury headed by a General Haines and 11 lieutenant colonels. Tweed says now, “Maybe there was a reprieve. I hope there was.”
Of those graphic accounts shared by Tweed, student Jon Dembski wrote, “First and foremost, thank you for your service. And your story. Words cannot express the appreciation I have for your courage and also your insights. As a young man I take your words to heart and thank you for showing a glimpse of history to our class.”
Another student, Jesse Wall, told Tweed, “You truly are a hero, an amazing man. I have never heard war stories directly from someone who experienced it first-hand before. I want to thank you for taking time out of your life to come see us.”
And student Jessie Jones wrote, “I could listen all day.”
Tweed then shared the story of meeting his future wife, Erika, while he was in charge of a Displaced Persons Camp (a D- P Camp), and this resonated with Gabrielle Knouff who wrote, “Those stories are something that everyone should hear no matter how horrific they may be , but I especially enjoyed your love story!”
First-hand accounts of the heat of battle, the atrocious acts of war, the aftermath of war, and love. Should the stories be shared? Tweed says, “It’s nothing I would look forward to. I’m not a public speaker and I don’t like to recall all that stuff.”
Dr. Vivian Blevins has been active in volunteering with the Miami Valley of Ohio veterans to record their stories and honor them since 2011. She has produced programs to honor World War II and Vietnam War Era veterans and is working on one for Korean War veterans scheduled for noon on Nov. 10, 2016, at Edison State Community College. She and her students do interviews for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, and she has produced over a dozen programs entitled “Veterans’ Voices for her local cable station. Send comments to: [email protected]