Veterans share WWII stories with new generation

Nick Blank
Posted 4/19/17

JACKSONVILLE – John Francis Frank said he’d never forget D-Day. Serving in the Navy’s amphibious unit, Frank stormed Omaha Beach during the Battle of Normandy when he was only 19.

“The …

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Veterans share WWII stories with new generation

Posted

JACKSONVILLE – John Francis Frank said he’d never forget D-Day. Serving in the Navy’s amphibious unit, Frank stormed Omaha Beach during the Battle of Normandy when he was only 19.

“The water was so rough. When we landed, the shooting started and never stopped, it was continuous shelling and your ears rang for days,” Frank said.

On a 50-mile stretch of beach, 9,000 Allied soldiers died and laid there for weeks. Frank remembers the stench.

“It’s a smell you live with, as I’m speaking it comes back,” Frank said.

There were two items of importance before Frank, the first was a bottle of sand from Omaha Beach. The second was a German helmet with a bullet hole through the front. Frank said he saw the soldier die.

“Helmets protect you. But they don’t protect you from a direct hit,” Frank said. “He wasn’t much older than I was.”

Frank wore his army side cap and uniform on a table with nine other veterans in the University of North Florida’s main ballroom Monday. Former pilots, infantryman, sailors and combat engineers told war stories and fielded questions from a packed crowd, giving students and younger veterans a glimpse at the World War Two experience that is quickly vanishing. Hosted by the UNF Military and Veterans Resource Center, the Green Cove Springs-based Military Museum of North Florida and UNF’s Thomas G. Carpenter Library also displayed WWII artifacts.

Howard Spencer flew P-47 bombers in the Army Air Corps and endured 93 missions over France, including Bastogne Remagen and Metz. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the French Legion of Honour. Spencer’s unit hovered 1,000 feet above his targets – buildings and tanks. Spencer said job his was to “make a mess of things.”

“To fly 90 missions and survive, somebody was looking out for me I guess,” Spencer said.

The event wasn’t completely serious though. Spencer told a story about going to the bathroom inside an airplane which brought the audience to tears.

“Hey Spencer,” called out Navy pilot and former UNF professor Donald Farshing, “been there, done that.”

Ray Wikstrom, head of UNF’s Military Veteran’s Resource Center flew helicopters for 31 years, including in Vietnam.

“The speakers’ were sincere and there was a fair bit of humor too,” Wikstrom said. “It’s a great experience, I cherish events like this.”

Andy Ramotnik served in the Army Air Corps and piloted B-25’s in North Africa and Germany. Ramotnik, who now lives in Orange Park, was shot down over Germany and taken prisoner. He was sent to Stalag 17B, a notorious prison camp in Austria that “America in WWII” magazine described as a “sprawling eyesore and den of misery.”

Groups of a hundred men were periodically forced to march and denied food. They would sleep in farm fields, exhausted. Back at the camp, Ramotnik went with another soldier, John, to get water for coffee.

“That’s when I noticed there weren’t any guards stationed in the alleys where they were supposed to be,” Ramotnik said.

They made a break for it and escaped through woods and a cave until they ran into Germans building foxholes and caves and were sent back to the prison camp.

Ramotnik spoke in sharp bursts, he’d pause and ask the audience, “What would you do?” or “What would you think?” whenever his story came to a set of decisions he had to make during his escape. One was whether or not to attack a German civilian who discovered Ramotnik and John in the cave. Instead, Ramotnik offered the man cigarettes, and then fled.

The second escape was simpler, Ramonik said. On a forced march, Ramotnik, John and 20 French POWs walked far past the guards and ran for the woods. Ramonik received a job and regular food from a sympathetic Polish wife of a German soldier fighting in Russia. After “a close call” from the German troops, the Polish woman asked Ramotnik and John to leave, but a Polish teenager told them the war was over.

Ramotnik and Spencer enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor. Al Malitz, a combat engineer who toured in the Pacific Theater, was eager to join the fight from an early age.

“Me and my friends said, ‘I hope the war lasts so we could get in it,’” Malitz said.

Jack Spitler and Matt Lindy hauled guns, uniforms, medals from the Military Museum of North Florida in Green Cove Springs to UNF. They volunteer at the museum, attend UNF and love military history, so their presence was an ideal fit.

Old military uniforms rested on mannequins while Lindy told curious students about his favorite relics, the 53-pound French Hotchkiss machine gun, and the .30 caliber M1 Garand bolt action rifle. Matt Lindy is a mechanical engineering sophomore at UNF. Lindy said he was thankful to see the veterans speak.

“The chance to see World War II veterans are few and far between, Lindy said. “You can read books about military, but hearing the history firsthand is pretty special.”

Spitler said he loved military history and his experiences working with veterans at the museum. Spitler is a freshman history major at UNF and he said the Distinguished Veterans event was an experience he would never forget.

“The event overall has been great,” Spitler said. “I’ve been having the time of my life right now, we are the last generation that gets to talk to these veterans, so it’s absolutely amazing.”

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