Heading to War
With the nation at war, John Stenger and his twin brother Charles were mandatorily placed into the University of Akron’s ROTC program. While attending the University, he and his brother began working the midnight shift at the Goodyear Aircraft plant, seven nights a week. As noted by John Stenger, “Naturally, we weren’t too wide awake in class the next day.” Along with balancing a job and school, he and Ayleen started going on dates more often. John Stenger switched jobs and started working the drop-hammer at the Firestone Aircraft, where Ayleen worked as a secretary. It was in early May of 1943 that eighty-four University of Akron students were called to active duty.
Among these were John and his brother Charles. The twins were bused to Fort Hayes, near Columbus, Ohio, where they were inducted and outfitted. Following that, they were taken to Camp Wolters, Texas, where they did basic training for sixteen weeks. Charles was sent to Colorado Springs for medic training while John was entered the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. In March of 1944, the ASTP was terminated due to the need for more soldiers in the ranks. John and Charles, both part of the 106th Infantry Division, were then both sent to Camp Atterbury near Indianapolis, Indiana.
With the successful, but bloody, victory at Normandy in June of 1944, soldiers were pulled from fresh units to replace losses on the front. John was sent to Camp Meade in Maryland where he was prepped for the journey “over there.” While there, his family and Ayleen came to visit him in Washington D.C. Before being shipped off on Queen Elizabeth, Stenger visited New York City with his fellow comrades. They saw the Rockefeller Tower and the iconic Radio City Music Hall. On September 24, 1944, he boarded the ship bound for Europe.
After zig-zagging across the Atlantic to deter possible U-boat attacks, they finally landed in Britain. From there they were ferried across the English Channel. John Stenger finally arrived on Omaha Beach, just three months after the invasion had happened. From there, he was taken to the infantry replacement center at LeMans. Just a few days later, he was taken aboard a truck to the border of Holland. There he was introduced to his new unit, the Company K of the 104th “Timberwolf” Infantry Division.
It was at Stolberg, Germany on November 16, 1944, that John Stenger experienced combat for the first time. As written by John Stenger, “At mid-day K CO dashed out of the slag piles toward a thick-walled objective about 200 yards away. High-velocity guns were direct-firing at the wall right overhead, with the concussion lifting you off the ground. But the wall did not give, and we were almost immediately pinned down by intensive artillery fire and mortar fire.The noise was unbelievable and men were being hit; we couldn’t move. The BAR man has jumped into a shell hole, but wouldn’t allow me, his assistant, to join him. I found a depression about 10 feet away. A mortar shell dropped into the BAR man’s hole killing him immediately. I inherited his BAR which had bits of his body clinging to it.”
Following these events, Stenger’s unit was ordered to pull back. The next day, they tried again. After getting past the wall, they entered a wooded area around twilight and were ordered to dig in. In the dark of the night, a German patrol discovered their position and ordered artillery and mortar support on Stenger’s position. Following the barrage of shrapnel, the German infantry advanced. Stenger wrote, “Our C.O. called for our artillery to fire on our position, which caught the Germans above ground while we had to the protection of our foxholes. There were bullets flying and artillery exploding in tree-bursts and on the ground. Wounded Germans and Americans were pleading for help.” As the Germans fled in the face of heavy casualties, one fell into Stenger’s foxhole on top of him. In a moment of “mutual horror,” a struggle ensued. Stenger gained the upper hand and turned the German over to his command post at dawn. While returning to his foxhole, Stenger noted that “There were dead and dying Germans everywhere; one lay about five feet from my position.”
Stenger’s company was ordered to fall back to the Slag pile. Upon doing so, Germans fired their machine guns upon them. After being pinned down for the entire day and night, Company K was missing in action. In the dead of night, the majority of the Germans had slipped away. In the morning, Stenger entered Stolberg to find it in ruins. He later wrote, “I had somehow survived unscathed with just a couple members of my twelve-man squad. After just one battle I was now a combat veteran – it doesn’t take long in the infantry.” Stenger and his unit may have won the battle for Stolberg, however, the war was not over yet.
Push to the Ruhr
In the month following Stolberg, Stenger was involved in the push to the Ruhr River. Villages and towns, unheard of before the war, became newspaper famous and burnt into the memories of the soldiers that fought there. Locations such as Eschweiler, Weisweiler, Frenz, Lucherberg, Lamersdorf, Inden, and others were the scenes of fierce resistance as the Stenger and his comrades pushed into Germany. Stenger wrote, “This type of warfare was effective but produced the greatest number of casualties – and a regular stream of military replacements. The rate of turnover meant that it wasn’t possible to get too well acquainted with anyone. And you kept feeling that your luck couldn’t last. During all this period there was no such thing as sleep or rest or absence of danger. We simply existed. Attention to bodily functions was hazardous to your health. There was no escape unless you were wounded.”
As German forces launched a counter-offensive in December of 1944, Stenger and the 104th stayed put. Unknown to him, his brother Charles was captured at St. Vith at the start of the offensive. The Battle of the Bulge was in full swing and Stenger’s unit found their position to be jutting out towards Cologne, which left their rear vulnerable. Through a haze of nighttime patrols over snow-covered fields, foxholes, and bombed out homes, Stenger persevered. By mid-February of 1945, the German offensive had stalled and the American task to defeat the Axis nation, “resumed with a vengeance.”
Upon reaching the Roer River, Stenger witnessed “the most massive bombardment imaginable on the opposite bank.” After crossing the river in assault boats, Stenger battled his way through various towns on the way to Cologne. It was on February 25, 1945, that Stenger and his company assaulted the town of Ellen. As remembered by Stenger, “At midnight we took off across fields deliberately flooded by the Germans by destroying dams. They shot flares overheard as we waded through freezing water, which near the edge of town was up to my chin – with hidden barbed wire. Machine-guns and mortars caught us as we entered the town. It was chaotic; platoons got all mixed up with one another. I ended up in a barn with German infantry trying to drive us out. After a long time things quieted down enough for me to venture out to bring in, with the help of another guy, one of my platoon who had been wounded as we broke into town. He had been calling for help, and I could not ignore his cries. No one else had responded; we were in a state of semi-shock from the cold water and the fighting. As morning broke I took a German medic from our prisoners to pick up a couple of his men who had been screaming for help near our barn. When I went looking for the bulk of my platoon, I found TEX dead with his arm blown off at the shoulder by a blast from a Tiger tank. I couldn’t find the others and assume they were forced to surrender. I have survivor’s guilt because I should have been with them.” In recognition for his bravery in rescuing a wounded comrade at Ellen, Stenger was awarded the Bronze Star. Following the engagement at Ellen, Stenger and the 104th entered Cologne in early March of 1945.
With the capture of Cologne came their next target, the industrial heartland of the German nation. With the unexpected capture of the Remagen bridgehead, which provided a direct path across the river, many units were pulled south. After receiving a piece of shrapnel into the bridge of his nose on March 25th, 1945, Stenger was forced to undergo surgery to avoid infection. By the time he was reunited with his company, the war was over. Stenger later wrote, “I still had a beautiful “black eye” to show for my absence, which made it less embarrassing for me. Most guys who receive other than really serious wounds feel a sense of shame on rejecting their outfit like maybe we let them down while they were obliged to continue the fighting.” Once Stenger convalesced, he and some fellow comrades disobeyed standing orders and rowed across the Mulde to meet the Russians on the opposite bank. Upon entering a town, a Russian artillery crew threw a party for their new American friends. As Stenger recalled, “In minutes the whole unit was throwing a 150-proof party in our honor. It was a joyful celebration; the war was over and we were still alive!” The war in Germany had ended. The war against Japan was reaching a fever pitch.
On June 11, 1945, orders were received for the 104th to be redeployed for the second wave in the invasion of Japan. As Stenger boarded a train bound for France, he passed destroyed bridges, prisoners of war, and a nation in ruin. Upon arriving at Camp Lucky Strike between Cany and Saint-Valery, France, Stenger and his comrades awaited to be transported aboard the John Ericsson to New York City.
In Camp San Luis Obispo Stenger and his comrades underwent training on tropical diseases. They also began to “singe the California hillsides with flamethrowers” in preparation for the invasion. Suddenly and without warning, on August 5th, 1945 the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Following that, a second bomb was dropped on August 9, 1945, on the city of Nagasaki. On August 15, the empire of Japan surrendered to the United States. Stenger recalled, “We combat veterans from Europe were delighted that many of us would not have to die on the beaches of Japan.” The war was finally over for John Stenger.”