Jack (Jay) Vandiver Jr., like many World War II veterans, has been reluctant to relive the horrible memories of his experiences — Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, Germany, among others.
The North Hall County resident, 94, more recently has opened up, and he has enough stories to fill a book. “I wanted to keep it a secret for a long time,” he said.
Vandiver wasn’t in the military when he was working as a mechanic at Fort Jackson, S.C., in 1941. When he was to be transferred to Mississippi, he quit and returned to his hometown of Gainesville to work for his friend Lewis Whitehead, who operated an automobile electrical service, then to Bell Aircraft in Marietta.
It wasn’t until 1943 when he joined the Army and received basic training in Florida. By June the next year, he already was involved in a major invasion of German-occupied France, D-Day at Normandy. Actually, he was a replacement for soldiers killed in the initial wave, and didn’t go ashore until the day after.
Vandiver recalls his ship rocking violently as it dumped depth charges over the side to keep submarines at bay. As he left his landing craft to storm the beach, his 60-pound backpack sank him underwater. “What saved my life,” he said, ironically, “was walking on the bodies of men in the water who had already been killed.”
German fire was fierce as he made it to the beach, where he crawled under some wreckage as his troops were pinned down. Paratroopers and ships firing at German positions finally let them advance. An officer approached him on the beach and told him he was being promoted to sergeant. “But I’m just a buck private,” Vandiver protested. “But you lived,” the officer replied.
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Vandiver was reassigned to wherever he was needed. While with Gen. George Patton’s Third Army when the 101st Division was pinned down in France, a general approached him and asked could he replace a clutch in a Jeep. He told him he could if he had the tools, and the general left. The general’s driver, a sergeant, kept coming to Vandiver and asking how long it would take.
Exasperated, Vandiver finally came out from under the Jeep and told the man, “Leave me alone. I will get it done.”
But it wasn’t the sergeant; it was the three-star general.
“I saw those three stars staring me in the face,” Vandiver said, and he apologized. “I thought you were the sergeant,” he told the general.
“Is that the way you talk to your sergeant?” the general asked Vandiver.
After the war ended, Vandiver was in charge of a repair shop, and a lieutenant came and told him he had a visitor. Mystified, Vandiver didn’t know who would be coming to see him. It turned out to be the same three-star general, for whom he had replaced the clutch in that Jeep. He just wanted to know how the mechanic was being treated.
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Vandiver was wounded during the Battle of the Bulge. He took shrapnel in his leg and chest. The medics told him they could operate, and he would get a Purple Heart.
“I didn’t care about no Purple Heart,” Vandiver said, and they left the shrapnel in his body, wrapped his wounds, and he drove a Jeep for a lieutenant because he wasn’t able to walk well.
Thirty-five years later, the injuries began to hurt, and he had two surgeries to remove the shrapnel.
• • •
Vandiver remembers marching all night to reach the German concentration camp at Dachau. “We liked to froze to death,” he said. “If we hadn’t been marching, I guess we would have.”
As they approached the camp, Vandiver toted an axle from a blown-up vehicle to throw into the electrified fences, shooting sparks everywhere. Some German SS troops were still there, some surrendered, some fired on the Americans, and some of the Germans were killed.
The horrors of the camp are still vivid in Vandiver’s memory. His voice cracks as he tells about them. Trains outside the camp were loaded with mostly Jewish prisoners, apparently being evacuated before Allied forces arrived.
“The first few cars, people were cheering as we arrived,” Vandiver said. “They were
freezing to death in those cattle cars. They (the Germans) wouldn’t let them off. The last few cars they were dead or half-dead.”
As they entered the camp, “skeletons” would salute you, he said, and some so near death wanted to be shot. “I don’t want to live,” some would tell Vandiver. Mostly what he saw were stacks of bodies and starving prisoners who were joyous at their liberation. Those who were able ran out the gates and began eating grass.
• • •
Vandiver had met a friend from Jackson County, John Ash, earlier in his career. They were in the same 42nd Rainbow Infantry Division. After Dachau, they came upon a farm on the outskirts of Munich. Nobody was there, but they found a ham in the kitchen of the home. Very hungry, they couldn’t believe their good fortune, and proceeded to prepare for a home-cooked meal.
“We saw that big old ham, it looked good, and I said ‘I’m gonna eat me some ham,’” he recalls.
Vandiver started slicing the ham and built a fire in the stove while Ash went into the yard to hunt for chickens and eggs. As he was cooking the ham, Ash came rushing back into the house, asking if his friend had eaten any yet. When Vandiver said he hadn’t, Ash emptied the pan on the stove and told him not to. He had fed a piece of the ham to a dog, and it died within a few minutes.
“It was a trap,” Vandiver said. “That ham had been poisoned.”
• • •
Another time, Vandiver, still almost starving, came upon a trainload of food that was stalled because the tracks had been destroyed. “I found me a gallon can of English peas, opened them with my bayonet and ate the whole can with my hands,” he said. “I got sick as a mule, and I never wanted any English peas the rest of my life.”
(Coming next Sunday: More stories from the life of Jack Vandiver.)
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.