CAPTURE THE FLAG — Tom Stewart holds the Nazi flag he captured in Germany during World War II.
By JACK BALTZ
Special to the Press
Tom Stewart turned 18 on Sept. 18, 1943 and was greeted by the government with a draft notice into World War II. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history. It was the most widespread war in history, with more than 100 million people serving in military units. It was marked by mass deaths of military personal and civilians to the sum of 50-73 million fatalities, including the Holocaust, where Hitler’s Germany murdered 6 million Jews.
Tom was born in the McConnell community north of Martin in 1925. His family moved to Martin in 1941. Tom married Bonnie White Sept. 5, 1943. He married her before he turned 18 because he knew he was going to be drafted.
After Boot Camp, Tom was assigned to the 7th Army, 70th Division, 156th Infantry unit. In the summer of 1944 Germany and its Axis forces had taken over France and were advancing on England. England commissioned the cruise ship the Queen Mary to become a military transport. Inside, stateroom furniture and decoration were removed and replaced with triple-tiered wooden bunks. Miles of carpet, cases of china, crystal and silver service, tapestries and paintings were removed and stored in warehouses for the duration of the war. The woodwork in the staterooms, the first-class dining room and other public areas was covered with leather. Tom along with 22,000 army men launched from Fort Dix aboard the Queen Mary. Without Military escort it took six days to zig zag across the Atlantic. Tom said you only got a bunk every three days and it was so difficult and crowded to make it to a bunk that most just slept on the deck. They docked in Scotland. He crossed the English Channel landing at Normandy “fortunately after D-day”
They were loaded into train boxcars and were headed to Paris when they were diverted to fight the Germans at the Siegfried Line. They had been divided into companies then into platoons then into squads. Tom saw his first combat at Forbach, France. Communication was difficult between the front line and the back, so the Army used solders as runners delivering messages. Tom was a runner. In his first battle he was delivering a message from the front line to the general in the rear. After delivering the message he asked the general a question. “When I am running I keep hearing this popping noise like a pencils breaking, what is that?” He answered, “Those are bullets going by your head.” Tom ran a little faster next time. The US Army had been kept at bay by mortar fire from the Germans when word came down “tomorrow we take the city no matter the cost.”
Tom said no one slept well that night. At 0600 hours “all hell broke loose.” They drove the Germans out and set up a perimeter on the other side of town. Tom was told to dig his first foxhole. A foxhole is a hole dug in the ground as a temporary protection for one or two soldiers against enemy gunfire or tanks. His first sergeant told him to dig it under a pine tree thicket. In asking why, Tom was told that when the mortar attack came they would hit the tree limbs and explode before hitting the ground. He had heard that most soldiers dig their first foxhole three feet deep until they experience a mortar attack then they dig it eight feet deep.
Tom dug his first one deep. That night he wrapped in a blanket and he and his first sergeant tried to keep warm in the foxhole. In the middle of the night the shelling began. At day break he said the pine tree thicket looked like toothpicks. Tom said the best way to describe a foxhole experience is “frightening.” One night with one of his foxhole buddies, they were trying to stay warm, so they rubbed each other’s legs all night. The next day they both complained about sore legs, when they realized that they had rubbed the hair off their legs.
Tom’s company advanced farther into Germany, they reached the Rhine River at Bengem. All the structural bridges had been destroyed so the Engineer Corps built a bridge out of pontoons. Tom’s platoon was crossing the bridge when during the night the Germans secured a mine to a log and floated it down the river. When it hit the bridge, it exploded taking out the bridge. Tom had made it across but he realized that his medic was on the other side of the river. He said it was not a good feeling to be separated from your medic.
Their company continued to drive the Germans back. They overtook a town outside Frankfurt Germany that had a medieval castle known as Burg Schwalbach. The castle had a Nazi flag flying above it. Tom climbed the tower and captured the Nazi flag and replaced it with “Old Glory”
Tom experienced some close calls. One of the times that Tom was running between the front and back line, he was told to carry a back pack canister of water to the front lines to be used to fill canteens. As he was carrying it a sniper shot him and he felt liquid run down his shoulder and he thought it was blood but then he realized that it had struck the metal canister and not him. Another close call changed Tom’s life forever. He had dug a fox hole in a tank trap in Germany when a mortar attack started. Something told him to move out of his foxhole and he moved up and to the left in the tank trap. A mortar exploded right in the middle of his foxhole. As he slid down into the tank trap he realized that someone was watching out for him. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the little New Testament that his mother had given to him when he had left for boot camp. He turned to Romans 10:13 and read “For whosoever shall call upon the Lord shall be saved.” Tom said he just took God at His Word.
When they reached Schweinfurt, Germany, Tom along with seven other men from his company were reassigned and told to report to Frankfurt, Germany. They were assigned to guard duty for Dwight Eisenhower who was the commanding general US Army, European Theater. They arrived in Frankfurt during the night. The next morning they got in chow line, when the head cook game out and asked “Are the eight men who got into town last night here?” He told them to move to the front of the line. Some of the other solders started to grumble when the cook explained. “These men have been living in foxholes, eating C rations, let them in.”
When they came in they were serving the typical oatmeal and green powdered eggs. The head cook told them they could have anything they wanted. Tom noticed that a cook was frying fresh eggs for Eisenhower. The head cook asked how many he wanted, he said two but ate eight eggs that morning.
Tom was in Frankfurt when the war ended on the European front. After the war, Tom came back to Martin where he still lives today. He and Bonnie had one daughter, Wanda, and were happily married for 66 years until her death in 2009. Tom is still active in church at First Baptist Martin, where he has been a member for over 60 years.
Author’s note: Our family once took in a foreign exchange student from France. I took him to meet Tom Stewart. He thanked Tom and told him “if it was not for you I would be speaking German now.”
Published in the WCP 3.7.13