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Johnny Vardeman: Grateful POW family treated local soldier
Jack (Jay) Vandiver Jr.

Jack (Jay) Vandiver Jr. was among American soldiers during World War II liberating the German prison camp at Dachau, where hundreds of prisoners either starved to death or were outright killed.

That was a shocking experience in itself for the North Hall County resident. But he had other stories to tell as the war wound down.

When Vandiver was on guard duty on a snowy night near Munich he relieved another soldier to let him warm up by a fire. About that time, he could hear some troops marching toward them. When they came into view of his flashlight, he realized they were German soldiers who still carried their weapons. “I started to run,” Vandiver said, before he discovered they were surrendering to the Allies and began placing their guns on the side of the road.

The upshot of it was, there were 200-300 Germans. “We just captured the whole German army,” somebody shouted.

Vandiver’s unit escorted them to another location nearby to be fed. His officer told regular German soldiers after they ate, they were free to go home. “They were just kids,” Vandiver said. The lieutenant had showed them mercy, but SS troops and German officers remained as prisoners.

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Later, when Vandiver was standing guard, a man across the road kept staring at him. Vandiver was nervous because he thought it might be somebody wanting to do him harm. “I thought I was going to have to shoot him,” he said. Finally, Vandiver asked the man, “You got a problem?”

The man answered, “You don’t recognize me? You freed me at Dachau.”

He told Vandiver he wanted to take him home with him and meet his family. “We want to feed you and take care of you,” the man said.

Vandiver declined at first, not knowing what he might be getting into. Finally, after the man came three days in a row, Vandiver agreed and went home with him.

Vandiver discovered the man and his family weren’t Jewish, but he had said something against Hitler when he had moved to Austria, and the Germans put him on a train to Dachau. He was to be executed with the other prisoners.

His wife wanted to wash Vandiver’s clothes, but they had had no soap for five years. Vandiver provided a bar of “GI soap.” When the wife returned his clean clothes to him, Vandiver asked how he could pay her.

“Just give me the leftover soap,” she said.

Vandiver did that, but told her to use it only for clothes, not for her face or hands. He later brought her some face soap.

The woman told Vandiver she had prayed and prayed for her husband to be released.

“Your guys were the answer to prayer,” she said.

Vandiver also heard the story of an elderly Austrian woman standing by the gate to her home weeping as Americans marched by after liberating the area. A GI came up and wrapped his arms around her, saying, “Mama, it’s OK, we’re here.”

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Vandiver was born on Summit Street in Gainesville. He attended Main Street School and Gainesville High School.

He and his wife Sue met at a skating rink on Main Street. She was attending a National Youth Administration School nearby at the time. She later attended Rabun Gap School when it was a junior college.

Their first child, Dianne Wallace, was born before Vandiver entered the service. Sue Vandiver worked at Bell Aircraft, where B-29 airplanes were made. “I was so tiny,” she said, “they had me crawl into the wings and belly to inspect electrical.”

The Vandivers’ second child is Jack Vandiver III, born after the war. He was a wrestler for the University of Georgia and has been a youth pastor and coach for 40 years. He is the strength and conditioning coach for Wheaton Warrenville South (Illinois) High School Tigers, who have won seven state football championships, runners-up five times and nationally ranked three times.

Jay Vandiver was discharged from the Army in July 1946. The family moved to Ohio for a year, then back to Georgia where he worked for trucking firms in Atlanta for more than 34 years, retiring in 1985.

Sue Vandiver worked for Sears-Roebuck on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta for more than 33 years, retiring in 1984. She turned 95 years of age Feb. 1, just days after her husband had his 94th birthday Jan. 28. They have four grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild. They will have been married 75 years in July.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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