Vet served in Pacific, European theatersFulda man sees greatest conflict at Battle of the Bulge
FULDA — Edwin “Johnny” Descombaz looked death straight in the face after an SS Trooper punched him in the nose and put a sword to his gut.
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
FULDA — Edwin “Johnny” Descombaz looked death straight in the face after an SS Trooper punched him in the nose and put a sword to his gut. It was the worst day of his five-year, three-month and 10-day stint in the U.S. military during World War II, and if it hadn’t been for the quick actions of Descombaz’ fellow soldier, he wouldn’t be alive to tell the story today.
“(The German soldier) was about to stab me in the stomach and my buddy shot him,” said the nearly 94-year-old Fulda man. He won’t be the oldest World War II veteran on Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight’s third flight at the end of this month, but he’s in the top five.
Johnny grew up on a farm near Virgil, S.D., and moved with his family to rural Round Lake in 1938. He worked for several farmers in the area before joining the National Guard in 1940. He was moved to the U.S. Army later that year, assigned to Battery F of the 215th Regiment.
“We thought for a while that Japan was going to land on Kodiak,” said Johnny. While stationed there, he took part in training exercises and had a lot of free time.
“We were lucky because we were in the 215th and our colonel was a hunter,” he said. “He had enough persuasion to talk them into letting us go to Kodiak (so he could hunt Kodiak bear). The 216th went to the Philippines and they almost got wiped out. We were dang lucky.”
Eventually, Johnny and his unit shipped out for the Aleutian Islands, making stops at both Kiska and Attu.
The Japanese had already left Kiska by the time the 215th arrived. Soldiers found remnants of their presence — including about a dozen Geisha girls hanging by their necks.
“They were pleasure girls for the officers,” Johnny said. “They didn’t want us to have them, so they hung them.”
When they arrived on Attu, the atmosphere seemed equally as quiet.
“We were walking along and one of the guys … fell through a hole,” he said. “He sensed something and started shooting in a circle. When we got down there, there were 21 dead Japs down there — he got all of them. They lived like rats, I tell you — unbelievable.”
Johnny served about 28 months in the Aleutian Islands before he was sent back to the United States for training in the Army Air Corps. He’d applied to become a pilot, and scored high enough on the test to get into the training program to fly the AT-6. After more than a year at Luke Field in Arizona, he was told he would have to go back to the infantry.
“They had too many pilots so they kicked me out,” he said. “I got the shaft.”
Perhaps it was for the best. Johnny later learned the squadron he trained with lost its first two planes when they were shot down over Germany early in the combat mission.
“I was lucky again,” he said.
Though he may not have felt lucky at the time, Johnny found himself in infantry training at Camp Van Dorn, Miss., and then Camp Shanks, N.Y., before being shipped to England.
“We built houses for three months for English folk who had lost their homes in the V-2 bombing by the Germans,” said Johnny.
The mission was to keep them busy as they awaited their next assignment — landing near LeHavre, France, under fire just days after the Normandy landings in June 1944.
Life in combat
After landing in France and taking on the life of a foot soldier, Johnny said they were always on the move. He would sleep in tents or German homes on occasion, but more than likely it was a fox hole. He dined on K-rations and would sometimes go without a shower for three weeks.
“We were in Liege and one of the soldiers … went in to take a shower (at a German’s house),” he said. “The German (soldiers) were coming from the other direction, and they were almost by the front door.”
The showering soldier had to escape through the bathroom window without his clothes, and Johnny said they headed west.
“North would have been through the city, and west was where we figured the American troops were,” Johnny said. “We walked and run and stumbled — we figured for about 40 miles — carrying our packs and stuff like that.”
There were seven in Johnny’s group, and when it finally found American soldiers, its members had to prove who they were.
“The first thing they asked was who (hit) the most home runs in the American League, and of course we all knew the answer was Babe Ruth,” Johnny said. “The Germans didn’t know that, so they knew we were Americans and we ended up in our respective companies.”
Johnny served in the 80th Engineer Battalion of the 106th Infantry Division (Patton’s Army). He saw Gen. George S. Patton “a few times with his pearl-handled revolvers” but never got close to him.
Of the five years, three months and 10 days Johnny served his country, it was a span of 21 days during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 that he considered the worst. Those were the days of hand-to-hand combat.
It was at the Battle of the Bulge that Johnny was punched in the nose and nearly speared in the stomach. His buddy, Floyd Moore, shot and killed the German soldier, and Johnny took the sword as a souvenir. He smuggled it home after the war in his bed roll. As for Floyd, Johnny never heard from him again.
“I just figured he never made it. I wrote to him once and I never got an answer back, so I figured the Germans done him in,” said Johnny.
Surviving so many dangerous encounters was a stroke of luck — and a lot of faith.
“My mother sent me a Bible when I was first in the service and I carried that with me all the time, and I think that probably helped me,” said Johnny. “That was one thing I read when I had spare time, and I had a lot of that. I had some pretty scary moments, I tell ya.
“The Germans were easier to fight than the Japs, because the Germans would give up,” he shared. “The Japs wouldn’t give up. They’d back in a hole and stay there until they got shot. The Germans would give up easy — that’s why we beat them.”
Dachau to Minnesota
Johnny and his fellow soldiers arrived at the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, Germany, just a couple of days after it was liberated.
“The smell was so bad that we couldn’t even stand it. We saw piles of bodies,” Johnny recalled. “I couldn’t believe that one human being could do what the Germans did to other human beings. It was unbelievable. Hitler was very ruthless, and so were the SS troopers.”
After Dachau, Johnny spent some time in Berlin, where he sold his Mickey Mouse watch to a Russian soldier for $20.
“They didn’t get paid for a long time and then all of a sudden they had a bunch of money,” he said.
Eventually, Johnny returned to France to board an English ship, the Dominion Monarch — deemed a first-class passenger ship — bound for the United States.
“All we got to eat on the way home was mutton, and some of it the wool was still on it,” he said. “To this day I don’t like mutton.”
Johnny received his honorable discharge on Oct. 18, 1945, at Camp McCoy, Wis. He then travelled by train to the St. Paul Depot, where he ran into the younger brother he hadn’t seen in more than four years.
“He’d been stationed at Skagway, Alaska,” said Johnny, adding that Larry served in the Army. “It was kind of a miracle — unbelievable that we’d meet in St. Paul.”
Together, the two hitched a ride back to the family farm in rural Round Lake.
“My folks were very surprised when we got a ride home to the farm,” Johnny said. “My mother cried. She didn’t hear from me for one stretch there for three years, so she didn’t know where I was.”
By the time they reached home, Johnny and Larry were expecting to have to help their dad pick the corn crop by hand, but they were surprised to see he’d purchased a two-row Oliver corn picker and an Oliver 70 tractor while his sons were away at war.
“We picked 1,800 acres of corn (that fall) to pay for the units, and we still had some money left over,” Johnny said.
Eventually, Johnny left the farm to work as a salesman for General Trading Co. in Worthington. He spent 14 years there before moving to St. Paul to serve as maintenance manager of an apartment complex. It was while in St. Paul that his garage caught fire and burned, destroying his car and nearly all of his military memorabilia. The only thing he has left are the sword, which is displayed at Larry Aanenson’s office in downtown Fulda, and his bed roll, which is displayed at the Fulda Heritage Center.
Johnny retired in 1982 and returned to Worthington. He moved to Fulda in 2002.