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Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Veteran's story told...after 93 years

Posted Wednesday, November 9, 2011, at 8:56 AM

(Photo)
WW II Veteran William Strauss with the manuscript he found 50-years ago, detailing a WW I Veteran's experiences fighting in Russia.

William Strauss, who lives south of Salem, is my favorite World War II veteran. I can hear him laughing at that, and say that is not much of a compliment, since there are not many World War II vets left to choose from.

Strauss, who is 92, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, Germany's last major offensive; a battle which raged for 40-days and took 19,000 American lives.

Strauss returned to his native Chicago after his traumatic war experience, and went on with his life, but he has always been a true patriot and worked hard through veterans groups to make sure the sacrifices of veterans are not forgotten.

That is why it is only right that he wound up with a book that gives rare insight into the ups and downs that soldiers faced during World War 1.

"More than 50 years ago, I was working on a sanitation truck in Chicago. It was about 50-years ago, when I came across a pile of belongings in an alley," Strauss recalls.

Always the pack-rat, Strauss took a minute to look through the debris.

"This big thick leather book caught my eye, and when I opened it, I saw a type-written manuscript," Strauss said.

After taking it home for a closer look, he was astounded by what he found.

The first inside page said:

TO RUSSIA

AND BACK

WITH A ROOKY

- - - - - - O - - - - - -


A man named George A. May had apparently written an account of his life as a soldier from May of 1918 to July of 1919. I say apparently because, as I began to read it, I wondered if it was a true story or a work of fiction. But, I quickly agreed with Strauss that it was a "true story," as May claimed. The manuscript, written partly as a diary and partly as though May was catching an old friend up on his adventures, is surprisingly detailed. He tells the story of a soldier who wound up in remote villages, where funny, strange and horrifying experiences were around every corner.

"I definitely think he is telling his own experience," said Strauss. "It is so real, he had to be there. He shared what a soldier goes through, what a soldier thinks about - home, loved ones, survival, dying."

The real twist to George A. May's story is, he wasn't trained and sent to France, where most Americans fought World War 1.

May was among a group of Americans who were shipped to England like cattle, then to Russia, where the English were engaged in fighting the Bolsheviks, who were trying to overthrow the Russian government and end Russia's involvement in Wold War 1.

As a Veterans Day treat, William Strauss has allowed me to share some exerpts from George May's story, just as he wrote them:

5-24-18. (Note: 1918!). Took physical examination for service in the morning, and passed very easily.

5-26. My birthday, and can't even eat a birthday dinner at home, because we have to report at eleven A.M. sharp. It sure was sad, seeing so many mothers, wives, sweethearts, and relatives bidding their loved ones good-bye, and all crying as if their boys were going to be shot the following morning.

Had a pleasant trip to Camp Grant, Ill...The next three weeks sure were busy weeks for us rookies, as they had us standing in line half the time drawing some kind of equipment or the other, or else trying to teach us the difference between our left feet and our right feet...

6-14-18. Part of our depot brigade left for Camp Custer, Mich. to fill up the eighty-fifth division, which is to "go over" in less than a month. Say, you never saw a happier bunch than our outfit. Only in the army three weeks, and "going over" in about three weeks. Sing, why, I'd bet a circus elephant against a four dollar dog, that people heard us four miles on each side of the railroad tracks.

We are now having heavy rain and sandstorms every day, and most of us are tired out from our regular twelve hour day of gas drills, bayonet drills, inspections, extended order drills, and regimental reviews. We are anxiously awaiting the order to move to come through.

7-21-18. Less than two months in the army, and here I am on one of "His Majesty, King George's" dirtiest transports, packed in with thousands of other rookies like a lot of cheap sardines, with the meals about the size a tubercular sparrow would enjoy...

8-1-18. Our eleventh day out from the States. Three English torpedo boats came out to meet us...as they expected a run-in with German subs. Next morning their fears materialized, and a battle between the subs and four of the cruisers lasted for about two hours. Over fifty shells were fired, and four submarines were sunk.

8-13-18. Disembarked at Liverpool about seven P.M.

(A period of more hard training was in store after May reached England's Stoney Castle Camp.)

8-27-18. Pulled out of the River Tyne...on the English Transport Nagoya, bound for Northern Russia. This tub just finished taking a load of sheep and cattle from India to Europe, so we weren't surprised at the odor one bit.

9-5-18. Disembarked at Smolney (Russia). Half the Regiment is sick. One man was taken off the boat dead. I have a pretty good touch of what I believe to be that now famous "Spanish Flu."

(Three days later the unit reaches Archangel, a city the enemy, the Bolsheviks, pillaged before fleeing. The first job is to make an ancient fort "home.")

The wind whistles across the Dvina River like the twentieth century limited passing Podunk, and the snowflakes are more numerous than the Bolsheviks retreating along the Dvina. We have good quarters (when we are here.) thank fortune, and good food when it comes up the river (none came up yet), so if we can only stand the winter, we will be all Jake.

9-23-18. Kitchen police, but couldn't swipe anything to eat but soap, and my poor tummy has at last become too weak to even digest that. Up to date (less than a month here) seventy-four men have died from really starvation and overwork, and only four were killed in battle.

10-6-18. Left for Bakaritsa. It took until late in the evening for us to get there and find billets, then went right on guard. Believe me, it is a strain on a man's system to be out in a cold rain all day (didn't take the pack off for eight hours), and then stand guard all night.

10-12-18. Company K got all shot to pieces, mostly from the English artillery that made a mistake in their range. So far, I guess the English killed more of our men than the Bolsheviks did. I wish the English would turn their guns over to us and let us fight it out alone.

11-5-18. (At Yemetzoke,) Had the first bath and change of underwear for a month.

Saw one of the biggest dogfights in the world, I guess, as there were hundreds of dogs in the fight. everywhen a dog would go down, the rest of the dogs would jump him and finish him up. We cooked some of the meat, but it got so dry and tough, we couldn't eat it.

1-1-19. Happy New Year. Someday...the Yanks who are up here with the Ruskies and the Limeys fighting the Bolo, will look back on 1919 with a lot more cheer than which they greeted the years actual beginning...We are within the Shadow of the Artic Circle. Thirty-six below zero.

1-27-19. Our little Captain came through with our mail. I not only get an armful of letters...but also a big seven pound box from home. Oh baby, there was a big cake of milk chocolate, about 20 pkgs of gum, a pound or two of sugar, and some of my favorite cheroots. I thought God was good to the poor, that day. We had a regular feast that night...

(The new year progressed with May's regiment traveling by sled from village to village, being attacked by Bolsheviks along the way, and facing more fights as villages were searched door-to-door for signs of the enemy.)

3-9-19. The Bolsheviks were making a heavy concentrated attack on the village of Vistafka...We loaded up with an extra hundred rounds of ammunition each, and started for the rumpus...

One Bolo machine runner was up in the tree with his gun. Steve, Mike, and myself all spotted him at the same time, so in about three seconds his gun fell out of the tree, and he came tumbling right after it, but I am sorry to say I don't think I hit him, as just as I fired, a piece of shell landed about four feet from me, and the snow that it scattered in my face surely deflected my shot!

3-26-19 Shorty Conrad blown apart, his intestines scattered all over his machine gun and Mike O'Neil's face. Mike O'Neil and Snyder all shell-shocked...We buried Shorty in the little cemetery in Kitsa...in the empty rifle crate...

6-1-19. During the winter we kicked about the bitter cold, and now we kick about the mosquitoes...We went on patrol again last night, and as we were cutting through a heavily wooded marsh, we spotted a whole company of Bolos, so as there were only six of us, and about 200 of them...we laid down right where we were until they passed. While laying there, I think about every mosquito in the world and all his relatives, both male and female, took a bite of me.

6-4-19. Our officers came over to the billett and joked with us for a while, and then told us we were going to be relieved in a day or two...

7-12-19 We docked at a fine concrete pier (in Boston) early in the morning, and were given handouts of ice cream, chocolate, cake, coffee, gum, cigarettes and a newspaper by the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and Y.M.C.A., getting more good things during that first hour in America than we got during the whole year overseas.

I purposely left out many of the (to me) most important parts of my diary...there isn't a person in the world, that didn't personally go through the Northern Russian campaign, that would believe a man could go through the untold suffering from hunger, cold, abuse and sickness and wounds without proper medical equipment, and still live to tell the tale...The less said about those things now the better for all concerned, as it is all over now...

"World War I? Most people today don't know much about World War II, much less World War I," William Strauss told me. "I think this could help educate people about what it was like, how terrible it was."

It has always been Strauss' dream to get George May's book published, or made into a movie. Strauss and his daughter, who has done some research, has found no evidence that May's work ever saw the light of day.

"I think, when I found it, he had died and someone just dumped all his belongings right there in the alley," Strauss said sadly. "It's sad what he and others went through was forgotten."

Strauss hopes that all will pause on Veterans Day to remember the sacrifices made by all veterans, from all wars.



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I used to call this blog "Stranger In Town" but time goes by quickly. After a year in these parts, I realize people will still say, 'he's from off' but I now proudly claim I am a "Stranger No More"! After a lifetime in living in big cities, small town life has produced surprises, good and bad but, after more than a year, I love it (most of the time!). I promise to keep on writing about stuff that interests me and things I think of to complain about. I hope you will continue to check in occasionally to read and comment.