Veterans Day: Colusa man sees combat in World War II

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The roar of cannon fire has long been silent for 97-year-old Verne Sanders of Colusa, but not the memory of his service in the U.S. Army when America and its allies marched to victory from the beaches of Normandy to Germany during World War II.

Sanders was just 21 years old when he was drafted from his small Nebraska town in May of 1942, and placed three months later with the newly activated 242nd Field Artillery Battalion.

It was a close-knit mobile unit that remained together all the way from Camp White, Oregon, to the European Theater – and helped to end the global war in Europe.

“I was in the field artillery, which is light artillery,” said Sanders, a sergeant in Battery B. “We were usually just a mile to two miles behind the infantry because our guns had a range of 12 miles.”

World War II was the most widespread and deadliest conflict in history, and directly involved more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. It lasted from 1939 to 1945 and involved most of the world powers in two opposing military alliances: the Allies, which included the United States, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and China; and the Axis, a coalition led by Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Training to become combat soldiers and artillerymen was intense, requiring a lengthy period of physical conditioning. It wouldn’t be until June of 1944, fully ready for combat, that Sanders’ battalion would board a train for New York with just speculation about their final destination.

Aboard a converted ocean liner, the 242nd made their way to Great Britain, where a forced wait in Glasgow, Scotland, for their guns and equipment to catch up to them kept the battalion out of the initial Normandy invasions.

“I landed on Utah, but not on D-Day,” Sanders said. “It was D plus 30 some. By then, the front had moved, but we caught up to the front lines at Saint Lo, France.”

Utah Beach was the code name for one of the two American invasion sites on the Cotentin Peninsula in France.

When Sanders arrived, the beach was still littered with the debris from the deadly battle and the landing of more than 1 million American troops in just over a month.

“I always wanted to go back to Utah Beach where we landed,” Sanders said. “I always wanted to see it again.”

On Sept. 10, the 242nd became engaged in their first battle, supporting the 79th Division as they crossed the Moselle River, and from Sept. 27 to Oct. 14, supported the 79th again in the battle for “Foret de Parroy,” the battalion’s toughest fight, in which they experienced their first casualty.

By early winter, however, the battalion got bogged down in the French mud, which made operations difficult.

“It rained almost constantly,” Sanders said. “We were near Lunneville, and the old French fort there served as our headquarters. We were there almost six weeks.”

Once mobile, the 242nd moved almost every day, either in daylight or with the cover of darkness, as they made their way through Saarburg, coming under heavy German artillery fire, and toward the Vosges mountains, then on to Bliesbrucken, Germany, by December, where they relieved a part of Patten’s 3rd Army in the Battle of the Bulge, the German’s last major offensive campaign on the Western Front.

A few hours before midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1945, and most of New Year’s Day, the 242nd vigorously defended an offensive launched by the Germans from across the Saar River at Ludweiler, Germany.

By nightfall, the battalion fired over 2,000 rounds, driving parts of the enemy back, before moving on to other battles.

On March 15, the Army’s 103rd Division launched an attack, which was part of the coordinated attack along the entire front, designed to destroy the German army west of the Rhine River.

Later that spring, Sanders’ battalion was fighting in the Kirchhausen area, firing some 6,000 rounds across the Neckar River to drive the Germans back so the Americans could make their final push to end the war.

“As the enemy moved back, we would move ahead,” Sanders said. “We got to moving so fast, we were actually carrying the infantry on our trucks. When we would get to a town, the infantry would clear it out, and then we would move through it.”

Sanders said once they were in Germany, they saw very few German civilians, who fled before the arrival of the American troops.

“They were scared,” he said. “They were probably told we would kill them. Every once in a while, we would look up into a building and see someone waving a white flag. We weren’t going to hurt them; they were alright.”

On May 1, 1945, the 242nd received orders to move out of the combat area. By that day, the 242nd had served 240 consecutive days of combat, and fired 73,062 rounds of 105mm ammunition at the enemy.

“We finished up the rest of the war guarding the German prisoners (of war) at Kaufbeuren (Bavaria),” Sanders said. “There were thousands of them. The only place they had for them was out in a big field. There was some cover for them, but there just wasn’t enough room for them. They were coming in by the droves.”

Sanders also saw the Dachau concentration camp while in Bavaria, which was liberated by the Americans days earlier on April 29, 1945. Dachau was the first of the Nazi concentration camps opened in Germany, intended to hold political prisoners.

“It has always been hard for me to talk about Dachau,” Sanders said. “It was pretty awful.”

Sanders said bodies at the death camp still filled several train cars along the tracks, but the camp was undisturbed while awaiting the arrival of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, later that day.

After the war, Sanders and other members of the 242nd remained close. Until about 10 years ago, the battalion met annually in Kearney, Nebraska.

“Most of us were from Kearney,” Sanders said. “We use to go to the reunion every year, but there just aren’t very many of us left anymore.”

Sanders moved to Colusa in 1982, and is a member of the Colusa Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2441.