Kopp helped camouflage equipment in RhinelandLUVERNE — Walter Kopp hasn’t seen pigs fly, but he has seen tanks float.
LUVERNE — Walter Kopp hasn’t seen pigs fly, but he has seen tanks float.
As a staff sergeant in Company D of the 606th Engineers Camouflage Battalion, Kopp watched his troops use large sheets of canvas to transport their tanks across the Rhine River.
“They were encased in canvas and they would float and somebody would stand on top and steer them,” he remembered. “They had been to the Amazon River to work this out; it was something you’d never believe.”
It wasn’t the only unbelievable encounter Kopp would have during his two-and-a-half years of service in the U.S. and central Europe.
A native of Lancaster, Penn., Kopp was helping produce B-26 bombers at the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company in Middle River, Md., when he was drafted — for the first time, that is.
“When I was called I was supposed to go and I had an attack of appendicitis,” he said. “Well, that delayed me about six months, and then when my number came up again, the (aircraft company) got me a deferment for six months,” he said.
When the draft board called him for the third time, he didn’t tell his employer.
“I wasn’t too keen on these deferments — I wanted to go and get it over with,” he recalled. “Some of these jobs I was doing the women could replace me, and that didn’t bother me any. So, I wanted to go but they didn’t want me to go. I ended up going anyway because I couldn’t get a deferment.”
“There were a lot of conscientious objectors and they had a hard time filling their quota of men who were willing to go. I could see the handwriting on the wall.”
Kopp entered active service in July 1943 and took his basic training in Camp Forest, N.C., before sailing for England in January 1945.
“The crew had roast chicken for dinner and we had soda crackers and a piece of cheese,” he chuckled, remembering the two-week trip amid 1,900 seasick troops.
When they arrived in Southampton, “We waited for the tide to come up so we could cross the channel, and it was cold,” he said. “I know guys froze their feet on the deck. I was fortunate enough to get in a cabin. The winter was the coldest they’d had in 50 years.”
Kopp served as a Camouflage Tech in the Rhineland of western Germany, working with the Army Corps of Engineers and the infantry to camouflage the equipment so it couldn’t be detected by enemy troops.
He supervised soldiers as they covered their vehicles and guns with chicken wire, ribbons, paint and branches — “anything at all to break the pattern of the tank,” he explained.
Along the way, his unit lost a few men to air raid bombings and picked up a few German patrol units.
“We turned them over to the infantry,” he said. “We’d come hand-to-hand with them, but that’s as close as we’d get. We didn’t fight with them, they just gave up.”
When he entered the Army at age 21, Kopp didn’t know what to expect.
“We saw the death. We saw the wounded. We smelt death,” he remembered. “The division we were in, some people didn’t think it was too (important), but we were respected by the people we worked with.”
The Luverne resident also delivered maps to troops spread throughout Europe.
“Most of that was done at night and under blackout — quite a feat,” he laughed. “Not like they have today, no GPS, you just felt your way.”
More harrowing than the nighttime navigation, however, was the near-deadly car accident he experienced while transporting three men from Oberstein to Aachen, Germany.
“I was driving and I had two officers sitting in front with me … and as we were coming out of this town, there was an upgrade. I looked up the hill and there’s a semi coming with a gas tank behind and the tanker lying on its side splashing gas all over the place. I turned off the ignition and it was about that time the tanker had hit us. The guys were knocked out on the sidewalk, and I just ran out of the truck as quick as I could and ran to the front door of the house and didn’t stop ‘til I got to the back door.”
The wreck burst into flames and a woman who had been travelling behind them was severely burned. Kopp was unharmed, and would remain so until his discharge on Feb. 11, 1946.
Despite the close call, he holds strong memories of wartime camaraderie with British troops.
“They had a little bit freer a life than we had; they had whiskey rations. And I went back to Paris one night for whiskey rations. We brought it back for the company, but we weren’t really supposed to do it,” he remembered with a mischievous smile.
After returning to the East Coast, he met and married wife Eileen in 1951, and the couple moved to farm near Kenneth in 1956. They have five children and 15 grandchildren.
Kopp said his wartime experiences influence the way he sees those in his life today.
“Now I’ve got grandchildren about yay tall,” he said, holding his hand at the height of a young child. “And when a little German girl comes up to you and says ‘Heil Hitler,’ it freezes you,” he remembered.
While vacationing in Europe a few years ago, he noted the stark difference from the war torn towns he had seen in the ‘40s.
“They were reconstructing quite a bit; there was scaffolding everywhere,” he said.
At the conclusion of World War II, he added, “You go into a city, a small city like Luverne here, and everything is destroyed but maybe the town square. And people you’d see, starving people come to your garbage can and take out food. It gets you to see how we flourish today. To see some of the things that I’ve seen.”