He spent time in more than 15 military bases, both in the United States and abroad. He was in Germany and France toward the end of World War II when Allied powers defeated Axis powers. Now, John Engels, 93, of Vassar Township lives a peaceful life in a country he helped shape through his time in the armed forces.
In an interview with The Advertiser, Engels was quick to point out that he had an easier time during the war than some because of “Those who had already given their lives before I got there. Those guys had already given it all. My end was a piece of cake.”
Engels was born on July 30, 1924 in Vassar to German immigrants who moved to the area to work in the sugar beet industry.
He graduated from Vassar High School in 1942.
“The superintendent asked me ‘What am I going to do when you graduate?’” Engels said. “I told him I’m going to work for my uncle (referencing Uncle Sam). He said ‘What does he do?’ I said ‘He runs the Army.’”
Engels went to work as an inspector with the Army Ordnance at the Detroit Tank Arsenal upon graduating.
He enlisted in the United States Army at the age of 18 and his military career began on the morning of April 8, 1943 when he took a train from Bay City to Detroit. When he arrived in Detroit, Engels estimates there were several hundred other troops there.
“There were mothers and children crying that day,” he said. “You’d thought they were being sentenced to life and would never get home again. Perhaps that did happen to some of them. It was really a horrendous time.”
From Detroit, Engels went to Fort Custer Training Center in Augusta, Mich., which is where he got acclimated to life in the military. He was there for two weeks.
“Things at Fort Custer weren’t like the medical profession today,” he said. “You would stick your arm through a window and bang, they’d hit you. A tetanus shot lasted about five days. That is where I heard my first gunshots. I would hear rifle shots from guys practicing.”
After Fort Custer, Engels received 13 weeks of basic training at Camp Callan in California, where he trained with rifles, hand grenades and machine guns.
“In the early days at Callan, there was a sense that the Japanese would bomb West Coast cities,” Engels said. Within the barracks at Camp Callan, a sign hung on a wall that read “Kill or be killed.”
“That was to get it indoctrinated into your brain,” Engels said. “That’s the purpose.”
Other military bases that Engels spent time at include Camp Roberts and Camp Haan, both in California and Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, to name a few.
He was shipped out west again in 1944. This time for amphibious training at Camp Cooke and Camp San Luis Obispo in California, with the possibility of being sent to fight in the Southwest Pacific Theater.
On June 6, 1944 – D-Day – Engels was stationed at Camp Cooke when he heard news of what was happening in Normandy, a region of France.
“I was washing dishes and over the radio I heard of the landings being made in France on D-Day. I was never so happy to be washing dishes in my life as I was that day,” he said.
Heading to Europe
Plans to be sent to the South Pacific changed abruptly for Engels and he was shipped to Europe in January 1945 as a direct response to the Battle of the Bulge. That battle had 75,000 American casualties – killed, wounded or missing – the U.S. Army Center of Military History website states.
“They needed a couple more divisions over there,” Engels said. “We were loaded on a boat at midnight and were shipped out of New York Harbor. We were stacked about eight deep. You had just enough room to roll into your hammock.”
The trip across the Atlantic Ocean took 15 days, according to Engels. His first stop in France was the town of Le Havre and Camp Lucky Strike.
While in France, Engels was a part of the 97th Infantry Division which was comprised of 15,000 men. Later on, they were sent to Germany for the final assault on the Fatherland.
While traveling into combat from France to Germany, Engels recalls being able to see the remnants of Dunkirk in France. The battle of Dunkirk occurred early in the conflict, in 1940. Thousands of French and English fighters were killed, but Dunkirk is remembered as an Ally victory due to about 400,000 soldiers being successfully evacuated across the English Channel to Great Britain.
“The sobering thing for me was seeing the military cemetery,” he said. “The number of crosses and other memorials. This is while we are heading into combat.”
Engels shared a vivid story from March 1945 in Germany when he was dropped off on the west bank of the Rhine River from the city of Dusseldorf.
“I was told that I’d be going on a special convoy as a road marker,” he said. “They loaded up an Army truck with about 10 of us. They dropped me off and told me I’d be picked up later when the convoy comes through.
“There are five-story buildings on cobblestone streets and it turns dark. Still no convoy. All of a sudden I hear a howitzer (artillery cannon) shot from behind the building. I thought they (Germans) were firing on us. I wait a little more and finally another one goes off. It’s then that I realized we’re not getting the incoming noise. I later found out that those two shots were the registration shots of our howitzers so the rest could pick up where they were going to fire into their targets on the other side of the Rhine River. It’s 1 a.m. and there’s still no convoy. I hear some engines coming and they told me to get on. I asked ‘Where’s the convoy’? They said there is no convoy, we’re a decoy.”
Engels says that the mission of his division was simply “Just to kill Germans.” He also noted that his division was directly fired upon multiple time by Germans during the war.
“One day around 3 o’clock someone said we were being counter-attacked,” Engels said. “You could hear below us the Germans were trying to fight their way back towards us and that wasn’t happening. We were pouring it down their throats. From our one howitzer, we fired 60 rounds before she started misfiring. The paint was just popping off outside the gun.”
One picture Engels shared was of him and a few other troops posing with a swastika flag in Germany from April 1945, about a month before the Allies victory was declared on May 8.
“We picked up the flag that had gears on it that were flown over a factory,” he said.
Near the Germany-Czechoslovakia border, service members that Engels knew came across Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on April 23, which was built by the Nazis in 1938. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates 30,000 prisoners died in Flossenbürg and its subcamps or on the evacuation routes to other camps.
“They came back and said ‘You can’t believe what we’ve seen there,’” Engels said. At that time, Engels was on a gun crew and still in combat.
Engels left Europe for the United States in early June of 1945 – less than a month after Germany surrendered. His time in the military ended on Sept. 9, 1945.
“My family was very happy when I came back,” he said. “My division was some of the first to come back and were very well received.”
Engels admits that for a while after returning to America, he had a hard time adjusting to civilian life. There are still times when he has flashbacks.
After his time in the service, Engels spent his career working at Universal Engineering in Frankenmuth, where he retired in 1986 after 39 years.
Those from Engels’ time during WW II are sometimes referred to as “The Greatest Generation.” He reflected on what that phrase means to him.
“That means that so many came out of the Depression era,” he said. “We didn’t have much of anything. The country was financially in trouble. That we were able to undertake what we did and accomplish what we did and to still do it in order to become the number one free nation in the world.”
Engels has been married to his wife Ruth for over 70 years and they have four children, 10 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren, with one more on the way soon.