In June 1943, not long after he graduated from high school in Johnstown, Mo., Wilfred Pettus was drafted into the Army.
A few weeks later, he was on a train headed for basic training.
“We had no idea where the train was going,” Pettus wrote in his book about his military experience. “All we could do was ride the train to where they were sending us and things would work out OK. The train went across Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona to California.”
Pettus ended up at Camp Callen, located just south of Del Mar.
“Basic training generally was not fun,” he said. “When basic training was over, some of us were selected to go up to Compton Junior College to take six weeks of refresher courses in math and science.”
Pettus was chosen, and took six weeks of classes before being sent to Indiana University in Bloomington for more school. He took chemistry, physics, algebra, trigonometry, English and physical education.
“This was a big load for a 12-week term,” he said. “They called the program ASTP, which is an abbreviation for Army Specialized Training Program. Two years of this was supposed to qualify us as engineers.”
However, Pettus did not take two years of classes. In late February 1944, he got scarlet fever and spent 45 days in the hospital. After being released, he learned everyone he had been in basic training with had been shipped to combat units that were being prepared for the invasion of Europe.
“They had no place for me to go,” he said. “There were about five others like me, so we had a good time doing nothing for about a month. Finally orders came for me to report to Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. The day before I was to leave, my throat swelled and I had to goto the hospital again, this time with the mumps. I was there for three weeks.”
After being dismissed from the hospital, he had to immediately report to Ft. Jackson.
“My doctor told me that I should be given leave or at least light duty for a while because the mumps were something one should be careful with for a while,” said Pettus. “I don’t think she understood the Army very well.”
Indeed she must not have, for Pettus had to go on a 10-mile hike with full pack, rifle and gas mask on the day he arrived at Ft. Jackson.
“The training didn’t seem to hurt me,” he said. “I was placed in an anti-tank unit. We trained on a 57mm anti-tank gun. The training we received was advanced combat training in the 346th infantry regiment of the 87th infantry division.”
Page 2 of 4 - On Oct. 17, 1944, Pettus’ division departed for England aboard the British troop ship Queen Elizabeth.
“I noticed when we left New York we were headed southeast,” he said. I found out the reason we were going southeast was to avoid meeting German submarines. There were probably several waiting for us on the direct route northeast to England.”
The Queen Elizabeth made the crossing safely, and Pettus stayed in England until the end of November. His division was then loaded onto an LST boat that took them to Le Havre, France.
From there, they made their way across the country to Metz, France in the province of Alsace-Lorraine. During some of the fighting in Alsace-Lorraine, Pettus was hit with shrapnel and wounded. He was later awarded a Purple Heart.
“We were close to the battle front,” he said. “In Metz we could hear the bombing of the artillery at the front. A short time later we moved to the front. The rifle companies had a terrible loss of life in about two days of combat. Our anti-tank company had no losses. About 12 days later, the Germans made a major attack about 75 miles north of us which started the Battle of the Bulge.”
Around this time, Pettus’ unit moved away from Metz and headed for the bulge area in Belgium.
“The evening of December 25 we moved east toward Bastogne, Belgium where the Germans had surrounded the remnants of several American divisions,” he said. “One armored division had lost every tank they had. General Patton’s third army, of which we were part, was attacking from the south and had finally broken through to Bastogne, but were partially cut off and partly driven back.”
Many tanks were lost during this fight.
“The road running southwest from Bastogne to Arlon, Belgium was pretty well littered with destroyed tanks, mostly American,” he said.
While fighting their way through several Belgian towns in the dead of winter, Pettus’ division suffered heavy casualties and was pulled back to a defensive area in nearby Luxembourg.
A few weeks later, Pettus’s division headed back toward the battle front. As they passed through the towns, he saw much destruction.
Around this time, an order came to disband all anti-tank companies. Pettus was subsequently sent with another soldier from his squad to Company C as a two man bazooka team.
“Starting at this point we found what combat was all about,” he said. “We were attacking the Siegfried line.”
The 87th division took several cities east of St. Vith, including Schoenberg, Stadtkyll and Prumm. During fighting in Schoenberg, Pettus saw many men get hit and killed by German artillery.
Page 3 of 4 - During his time in combat, Pettus and his comrades sometimes did not have regular meals. One time, he went three days without any food. Also, he once went six weeks without a shower.
Around the first of March, they broke through the Siegfried line. The Germans began to retreat, and Pettus was with a group that moved into a town inside Germany.
“About March 13th we loaded onto trucks and went about 90 miles to Rubenach, Germany where the Moselle River joins the Rhine River across from Koblenz,” said Pettus. “The Germans had moved out of the area near Belgium very quickly without any resistance and set up a line of resistance on the east bank of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers.”
In April, Pettus received a letter from home telling him his younger brother Vernon had been killed. Vernon was in the Second Armored Division of General Bradley’s Ninth Army.
After continuing to fight as they moved through Germany, Pettus’ division finally got word on May 7, 1945 that the war was over.
Following this announcement, many Germans began surrendering.
“Our company was guarding at least 1,000 of them,” said Pettus. “When they started coming in, we thought the end would get here soon, but they just kept coming for about two days.”
As he traveled through Europe, Pettus noticed the Europeans who had been displaced by the war.
“Hitler had brought in a lot of people from Poland, Russia, Czechoslovakia and other countries they had occupied to work as slaves in his factories to keep the war supplied,” he said. “They weren’t paid and were given very little food and other things thought to be commonly necessary. Many died because of their working conditions and in Allied bombing raids trying to stop the production of war materials.”
He noticed any time the Americans threw something away, these people would go through the trash and eat some of it.
In June 1945, Pettus left Germany for France.
“Our company was loaded into boxcars and we traveled across Germany in forty and eight boxcars,” he said of the cars that could accommodate 40 men or eight horses. “We moved very slowly and stopped for long periods of time on sidings. Railroads were not in good working order yet.”
During the trip across the Atlantic Ocean, Pettus became sick.
“The waves really tossed us around,” he said. “We were all terribly sea sick, but it was still good to be going home. Many of us that had come to Europe weren’t returning.”
Page 4 of 4 - On July 19, 1945, Pettus landed in Boston. Shortly thereafter he was sent to Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis and given 30 days leave to go home.
For most of the time Pettus was at home, he doctored his sore feet, which had been frostbitten during the previous winter.
“Our division was scheduled to go to the Pacific theater of operations after our 30 days leave were up,” he said. “President Truman authorized dropping the atomic bomb and the war ended in Japan before my 30 day period of leave was up.”
On Aug. 27, 1945, the 87th Division was deactivated. Pettus was transferred to Ft. Dix, New Jersey where he worked as a clerk at the Army separation center until his discharge on Dec. 17, 1945.
In May 2010, 65 years after the Battle of the Bulge, Pettus went back to the site of this battle and others for the first time. He and his daughter, Lynne Smith, spent nine days with a tour group that included 10 other veterans.
They stopped at battlefields, mostly in Belgium and Luxembourg, where they laid wreaths at the memorials, including the one at Bastogne.
Pettus was chosen to lay the wreath at the Mardasson Memorial near Bastogne. Throughout the tour, local residents would come up to the veterans to thank them for liberating their towns from the Germans so many years ago. Pettus also saw numerous plaques dedicated to the Americans on buildings in the towns he visited.
Pettus, who spent 30 years as a chemistry teacher at Butler Community College, still feels sadness when he thinks about his brother Vernon and all the other boys who went off to war and never came home.
A number of years ago, he was asked to share some of his experiences with students at Circle High School. One of the classes he spoke to had mostly boys in it.
“I looked at them,” he said. “They looked about the same age as some kids I saw get killed. Suddenly it seemed very unfair that I was able to be lucky and survive, have a good life and great family and the kids I saw killed never got to experience that.”
Even though the war was difficult, Pettus is proud to have served his country.
“There is no question about it,” he said. “I feel fortunate to live in the greatest nation on Earth. Our flag represents that nation. It’s a great situation in this country and I hope we can keep it that way.”