Vet guarded captured GermansLUVERNE — John “Gordy” Aanenson beams with pride when he pulls a dagger from its sheath and points out the “Alles für Deutschland” inscription on the blade.
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
LUVERNE — John “Gordy” Aanenson beams with pride when he pulls a dagger from its sheath and points out the “Alles für Deutschland” inscription on the blade.
The World War II weapon was given to him by a German SS Trooper in exchange for a single pack of cigarettes inside a prison camp at Plzen, Czechoslovakia. Aanenson was sent there to guard captured German soldiers after the war ended on the European front.
While the dagger is one of the Rock County World War II veteran’s prized possessions, equally so is the German pistol he also acquired in trade — again for a pack of cigarettes.
“If you had a pack of cigarettes, you could get pretty much anything,” said Aanenson.
Germans giving up their weapons for meager moments of tobacco-induced pleasure may seem rather strange considering the battles they fought against American troops, but Aanenson said when the war was over, the German soldiers seemed no different than the Americans.
“Them people, they were just like we was — they were drafted,” said Aanenson earlier this week from his home in Luverne. “They were made to fight. It was just ordinary people out there. They wouldn’t hurt you — they never did me anyhow. They were just nice people.”
Aanenson’s journey into war began a month before his 19th birthday. Born north of Kanaranzi, he attended country school near Blue Mound State Park and then Luverne Public School after his family moved to town.
He was 11 years old when his dad died, and went to work on his brothers-in-law’s farms to help earn money. At the end of the 10th grade, he gave up school entirely.
“I worked on farms until I went into the service,” he said. “I was drafted.”
Aanenson reported for duty on Oct. 15, 1944, at Fort Snelling.
He was then sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., for issuance of his military uniform and other Army necessities, before traveling to Camp Wolters, Texas, for basic training.
In March 1945, with his training complete, he returned home to southwest Minnesota for a few days leave before being shipped off to Europe with the Infantry’s Second Division.
The soldiers landed at LeHavre, France, with the intent of reinforcing the U.S. front lines in battle, but they had yet to get their assignment.
“I’ll never forget it because it was about midnight (when we docked) and we were all tired. We had them big packs and had to climb a big hill up to where they had a bivouac area,” Aanenson recalled. “They had just taken all the stoves out of the tents, so we had to pile on every bit of clothes we had just to keep warm that night.”
They waited there for orders to come, but with everything moving so fast on the war front, Aanenson said the soldiers wouldn’t have been able to catch up to them.
A few weeks later, America declared victory in Europe.
“We probably would have went to the front if the war had been on, but we went to Czechoslovakia instead,” Aanenson shared. “They loaded us up on 40&8’s (old boxcars) — 40 people or eight horses — and sent us down … to guard German prisoners.”
Aanenson and his entire company of 150 to 160 soldiers guarded the captured Germans in a prison camp that was estimated to be about the size of three city blocks. Tall buildings, a stone wall and a meandering river served as the camp’s boundaries.
“We walked around it,” he said of his job. “At night it was kind of scary. There were two or three of us marching — we’d march real fast until we could see the other guy, and then we’d slow down a bit.”
Armed with a 30-caliber M1 rifle, Aanenson couldn’t recall just how long his shift lasted, but said it made for some long nights.
When he wasn’t on guard, he was allowed to sleep in the home of an elderly Czechoslovakian couple. There wasn’t enough housing for the soldiers, so there were many instances where the Czechs opened their homes.
Many in Czechoslovakia were quite poor and didn’t have the means to feed their families.
“When we’d get done eating and go to the trash cans, them poor old ladies would take the stuff that could be eaten, take it out of the trash can and take it home and cook it,” he said. “They were hungry.”
Similar experiences occurred even before they arrived at the prison camp.
“On the way to Czechoslovakia, they’d flock around you to see if they could get something to eat or a cigarette — that was the big thing,” he said.
There wasn’t a whole lot of food for the Czechs to get from the American troops. They had mostly K-rations to eat, especially when they were traveling.
“I liked the cans of pork and applesauce,” Aanenson said. “We’d get cheese — it wasn’t anything fancy, but it held us together.”
Aanenson worked at the camp at Plzen from April through August 1945, and was then shipped back to the United States on furlough.
Change of pace
By the time Aanenson reported back to Fort Hood, Texas, the war in Japan had ended, and he was assigned to the military police at Fort Sam, Houston, Texas.
“That’s what I done until I got discharged,” he said. “We’d go after guys that were AWOL.”
Tracking down deserters was a weekly occurrence at Fort Sam Houston, and Aanenson had his share of experiences in bringing young men back to base.
“A lot of them poor kids were just lonesome,” he said. “I went after one kid one time — I always handcuffed them — and all the way home he run his hand in and out of the handcuff. He said, ‘I could run away anytime I want to,’ and I said, ‘You better not.’
“He was a good kid — he just got scared and wanted to go home,” Aanenson shared.
Once, when a deserter was able to escape from the Military Police, Aanenson said the two MP’s were given six months in the brig.
“The first thing I done when I’d pick up a guy is load my gun in front of him,” he said. “I wasn’t going to sit in jail for one of them.”
Aanenson worked a four- to six-hour shift as an MP and, for a brief time, he was asked to play the recording of the bugle on base. They didn’t have an actual bugler, so the recording needed to be played early in the morning and late at night.
“I had it easy for a while,” he said with a smile.
After 22 months in the Army, Aanenson received his honorable discharge on Sept. 30, 1946. In service to his country, he received the American Theater Ribbon, EAME (European-African-Middle Eastern) Campaign Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal and the Victory Ribbon.
With a family that included three brothers and seven sisters, Aanenson was the only one to serve in World War II. He had two brothers-in-law serve their country during that same time — one in the Marines and the other, a gunner on a bomber.
“The (plane) got shot down about 10 days before the war was over,” he said.
When Aanenson returned to Rock County, he worked for Council Oak Grocery in Luverne, then had brief stints farming, hauling cattle, working at Northrop Aircraft in California, and driving cement truck for Rolph Construction in Luverne.
A couple of years after he and wife Gloria were married, they settled on a farm south of Kanaranzi. There, they raised three children. The oldest daughter was killed in a car crash in 1966, while daughter Pam Kopp and son John David Aanenson both live and work in Luverne.
Aanenson’s grandson, Isaac, will serve as a guardian for his grandfather on the fourth and final journey of Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota later this month.
On the very day Aanenson flies to Washington, D.C., to view the World War II Memorial, he will celebrate the 65th anniversary of his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army.