Have you wondered what your family member experienced in World War II? How about about tracing World War II footsteps of your father, grandfather, uncle, or cousin? I had the wonderful privilege to follow in my dad’s path in Germany and France. It’s extremely moving. It is definitely the experience of a lifetime. I highly recommend it.
He left for France in April of 1945, right before the end of the war. My dad served as part of the occupying force keeping peace after the war. Landing in Europe, he moved across France, just south of Luxembourg, and reported in Angevillers to the 2985th Company, 82nd Battalion, 14th Depot, staying there till 5/4/45.
Tracing World War II Footsteps in Schwabach, Germany
Dad arrived in Schwabach, Germany on 5/8/45 – the day the war in Europe ended. The Germans fled only about a week earlier. Schwabach today is a charming town with no evidence of the rubble from World War II bombing. The medieval wall still surrounds the half-timbered buildings of this peaceful place.
For me, it was so moving to stand on the grounds of the barracks, where my dad heard the news of the war’s end. Wearing his dog tags was a way to honor his memory. I’m grateful he kept them in a box in the back of a drawer, undiscovered for 72 years.
On May 10, 1945, Dad was assigned to the 90th Infantry Division, which is known as the Tough Ombres. He was in Company M of the 357th Regiment and was a Heavy Weapons Platoon Officer. Dad was next assigned to Flossenburg Concentration Camp, almost to the border of what was Czechoslovakia. He went through the gates on July 7, 1945.
On to a Concentration Camp in Flossenburg, Germany
The attraction for the German war machine was the large granite quarry in Flossenburg. As the war went on, more and more prisoners from virtually every country in the European theater of the war were sent here to wrest granite slabs from the earth.
Today, the quarry still produces granite, while the camp has become a peaceful memorial to those who died here. The administration building is now occupied by historians and others who run the memorial museum and research the prisoners and their families.We were honored with a full-day tour by two of these amazing historians. We learned so much firsthand about each of the buildings and the layout of the camp. We heard about the lives of the prisoners. And we talked about the role of the U.S. army in liberating the camp and occupying it right after the war.
We toured the gardens. We went in the memorial chapel with its lovely stained glass. We paid respects at the mass grave. We stood in the shadow of the guard tower and somberly entered the crematorium.
The German guards left the sickest prisoners in camp when they fled. This is what Dad would have seen when he arrived.
Even though I had read all I could find about Flossenburg before our trip, I learned even more from actually being there and spending the day with Annabelle and Tamara. In the museum, we found this photo and learned that German SS prisoners arrived at Flossenburg when Dad was stationed here. He surely would have seen them. He spoke of the camp prisoners who were ill but never mentioned these SS soldiers.
Dad’s superior wrote on his evaluation during his time at Flossenburg: “This officer should be an Engineer officer instead of an Infantry Officer as he is a graduate Electrical Engineer.” So Dad transferred from Flossenburg to Le Havre, France to join the Engineer Corps.
Enjoying Leave in Paris, France
Stationed in Le Havre, France
Le Havre is a busy port city on the English Channel. My dad helped restore electric lines. Dad’s superior wrote of his port electrical officer: “A very intelligent officer who devotes a lot of time to planning. Handles his work in a quiet and efficient manner.”
Here are a few of his photos. One is of a band formed by the German prisoners of war in Le Havre. My dad spoke highly of them, saying they didn’t want to be sent back to Germany, as their country was decimated, so they were cooperative and helpful. And musical!
Traveling on the Rhine, Germany
Home via New York, New York
That’s the story of the army days of my Dad, Bill Savely. But there’s one important addition to the story. From France, Dad sent a telegram to his sweetheart Mary Petrafka, saying “How about being my Valentine for keeps?” and the rest is history. They married February 6, 1947 and enjoyed being Valentines for 56 years, until Dad left us December 8, 2003. He lives on in our hearts.
Tips for Tracing World War II Footsteps and Finding Military Information
To get records of someone who was in the U.S. service in World War II, go to the National Archives website and follow the directions to fill out their form. It’s well known that records burned in the 1970s, and I was discouraged from trying this, but I went ahead anyway. I got a pile of records that were slightly blackened around the edges but totally readable. It’s worth a try. Some burned and some didn’t, but you won’t know unless you order them. The cost is about $70.
Reach Out to Others Who Can Help
I also would encourage you to look up information and groups of the unit your family member was in. There’s still an active group from the Tough Ombres, so I learned more about that army with just a bit of research.
If you can find someone who knows someone, you may uncover a treasure of information. I contacted Jennifer Holik at the World War II Writing and Research Center. She put me in touch with a soldier who was in the liberation unit at Flossenburg. He sent me a huge notebook of information he’s collected so I could copy this. It’s a one-of-a-kind resource I was so thankful to have. He and other army guys encouraged me and helped me plan my trip. Reach out — you’ll be glad you did!
Prepare for Your Visit To Memorial Sites
If you are going to a public memorial like that at Flossenburg, write ahead and let them know you are coming. I was planning only a short time and maybe a one-hour tour. When the historian wrote back that she would like to offer to guide me personally, that turned into a full day and a priceless time of learning about the camp at the exact time my dad was there. You can read more about my visit here.