An American Hero
WORTHINGTON — The year was 1943 — just a few weeks after Christmas.
The country was at war on two fronts, in Europe and in the Pacific.
On a small family farm outside of St. Kilian, times were tough for the Fritz family. Mom and Dad had eight children; they’d made it through the Great Depression and now, with the raging of World War II, they still had sacrifices to make.
“We were all home this one particular night,” recalled Robert Fritz of a mid-winter’s evening on the farm. “My dad wanted to talk to Mom, and they told us to go in the living room.”
After the door was shut between the two rooms, Robert — a self-professed nosy teenager — put his ear to the door and listened as his dad broke down and told his wife they were in danger of losing the farm. He didn’t want the kids to know.
But Robert heard, and it bothered him — so much so that he decided it was better to give his own life for his country than to sit idly by and watch his family lose their home.
At just 19 years old, Robert decided to enlist in the U.S. military.
“I just knew right away what I could do,” he said. “If you die in the service, your family gets $10,000 and that farm would have been my dad’s.
“I really didn’t know what I wanted (to do with my life), but I knew I didn’t want Dad to lose the farm.”
Even now, sitting in his Worthington apartment with two of his daughters listening in, he wonders at the decision he made.
“I was pretty young and pretty dumb,” he joked.
His daughters took offense.
By the time the war would end, five of the Fritz siblings would serve their country. Robert’s older sister, Evangeline, was a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), and four of his brothers joined the war effort. Of the siblings, Robert was the only one to serve overseas.
Ready to see the world
On Feb. 2, 1943 — nearly 14 months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii — Robert joined a couple of guys on a trek to Fort Snelling, where they signed on to serve their country. Robert chose the Army, and when he learned he could make another $50 per month as a paratrooper — they called it hazard pay — he signed on for that, too.
“I wanted a place where I was going to see something,” said the man who, until driving to Fort Snelling to enlist, had never been outside of Nobles County.
Between basic training and learning to jump from a moving aircraft, Robert saw quite a bit of his own country — Texas, Louisiana, Georgia — before packing up his gear and heading off to the Pacific Theater.
A ship carried them to an area off the coast of Luzon, the largest of the Philippine islands, but because there was so much coral along the coastline, the plank was lowered and the men instructed to head to shore.
“It was one of the biggest armadas they said there ever was,” Robert shared.
Loaded down with weapons and ammunition, the troops swam toward land — staying underwater as much as possible so they wouldn’t become a casualty of war.
This region of the world — the Philippines and New Guinea — would become Robert’s home away from home for nearly two years.
No place like home
The jungles of New Guinea were far from the corn fields of southwest Minnesota, and soldiers had to worry not only about where the enemy was at all times, but also what they were going to eat and where they were going to rest.
“That’s the damndest place you ever seen,” Robert said of the jungle and New Guinea’s native people. “They don’t wear clothes — they run around naked as a jaybird, things sticking in their nose and in their ears.”
When they could get them, the soldiers dined on the military’s food rations — MREs — but mostly lived off the land. Bananas and coconuts could be plucked in the jungle, but the challenge was finding a protein source.
“One animal looked more like a rat than anything,” Robert detailed. “They were good to eat, but how were you going to fix something like that when you’re just a little ways from the enemy?”
They were so close to the Japanese they could hurl insults at one another — and most often they were about the other country’s leaders.
“We always told them, ‘Tojo eat s—’ and they yelled back, ‘Roosevelt eat Spam,” he shared.
Tojo was short for General Hideki Tojo, Japan’s Prime Minister during World War II who, in 1948, was tried and hanged as a war criminal.
While their food sources were bleak in the jungle — Robert dropped to about 90 pounds and pictures of him then clearly show his rib bones — the living conditions weren’t any better.
“My living conditions were very bad,” Robert said. “If it wasn’t raining, it was hotter than heck. With all the bullets flying around and the guns going off, it added a little more heat to the pot.”
“At night, it got so cold. We had pup tents, but it didn’t keep us warm.”
While on New Guinea, Robert received some devastating news. His dad had died, and it took nearly two months for the message to get from southwest Minnesota to the jungle where Robert was fighting to survive.
“I would have went home if I could have got home, but the Japs had control of the sea, they had control of the air — they would have shot me down before I got a third of the way home,” he said. “One pilot was flying a P-38 — a fighter plane. He offered to fly me home, but I just couldn’t let him do that because it was suicide.”
As a paratrooper, Robert and his fellow men serving in the 188th paratroopers of the 11th Airborne Division — an elite group of men known as some of the toughest and most physically fit of World War II — completed three significant jumps in the war.
“We jumped out of C-47s,” Robert said. “We flew in over the jump spot, and they opened the door and let you out.”
Three dozen men would leap from a single plane — often jumping from 1,200 feet, but enduring some of the most dangerous 500-foot drops.
“The landing was all up to the weather,” Robert said. “If it was a cold day, you would hit the ground a little harder than you would on a warm day.”
While the quickly approaching ground certainly caused some injuries, the paratrooper’s greatest fear was being shot out of the sky by the enemy.
“We had lots of them that got killed from the shooting — from the war,” Robert said, his voice getting somber. “It’s just a bad, bad deal. War is hell.”
Robert didn’t come home unscathed. He was shot in the leg and spent two weeks in a field hospital on Luzon, Philippines, after a jump near Tagaytay Ridge. Incidentally, he never received the military’s medal for injury in combat, the Purple Heart.
The infamous liberation
Robert’s greatest mission as a paratrooper with the 11th Airborne Division came in early 1945, about 30 miles north of Manila, Philippines.
The unit’s command was to be dropped in a clearing not far from the village of Los Banos. On the outskirts of town stood a prison camp, filled with 2,147 detainees. American soldiers, sailors, marines, nuns, priests, teachers and families were inside the camp ruled by Japanese guards. They were offered little to eat.
“We jumped in there and there was an awful fight at first,” Robert said. “It didn’t take us long and we had … the prisoners out of there.”
Footage from the actual raid (including one of Robert jumping from a plane) was used by The History Channel during the production of the DVD, “Rescue at Dawn: The Los Banos Raid.”
The raid, on Feb. 23, 1945, coincided with the day troops raised the American flag on Iwo Jima.
“That’s why it never got much attention,” Robert said. The Iwo Jima flag raising made the front page of newspapers all across the country. The story on the Los Banos raid, however, was buried inside, if mentioned at all.
As important as the raid was to the thousands of people held in captivity, Robert wonders now if it was really worth it.
A couple of weeks after the raid — after rejoining their outfit — the paratroopers returned to Los Banos.
“There wasn’t a live person in there,” Robert said. “They (the Japanese military) retaliated and killed all of those Philippinos — they just butchered them in retaliation for us killing all of the Japanese that were holding our prisoners.
“We got those prisoners out of there, but did we gain anything by it?” Robert asked. “Did the Japanese win that war, or did we win that war?”
Devastation and ruin
Robert was still on Luzon when Americans dropped the atomic bombs on Japan and he learned he would be heading to Okinawa.
Despite the near crippling of the Japanese military, the soldiers were told to prepare themselves for a mission that could very well be their last.
“They told us if we went in there, we could figure on (not surviving),” Robert said.
They arrived on Okinawa to find a nearly desolate place.
“There wasn‘t a damn soul on that island,” he said. “It was like a dead man‘s place. The Japanese were so scared of us.”
And yet, their mission still had to go on.
“We were all laying on the air strip in Okinawa,” Robert recalled. “We had our ammunition — I had grenades strapped on all over. Wherever I could hang a grenade on, I did.”
The men were still waiting on the airstrip when they received word that the Japanese signed the peace treaty. The date: Sept. 2, 1945.
In the days that followed, Robert and many other American soldiers trudged through the ruin on Japan’s mainland. Children would come out, and the soldiers gave them candy.
“It was absolutely sick,” Robert said of the devastation. “I just can’t even imagine the United States dropping the bomb on all those little kids. I seen some nuns, they were walking around with the flesh just hanging down off their face.”
While it may have been horrific to see at the time, Robert said he was probably thinking the same as all of the other American soldiers — “Give it to ‘em, you know.”
But time has a way of healing those wounds.
“When you really think about it and you get old, then you start thinking different,” he said.
Robert was honorably discharged from service on Jan. 7, 1946, and with mixed emotions, he returned to southwest Minnesota. His family still had their farm, but it no longer seemed like home.
“I was sort of sad,” he said. “I thought of Dad not being there. Things just weren’t right at home — it seemed like things changed. It was so different.”
Coming home, he didn’t have that buddy looking out for him — the military men he counted on to “have his back.”
“I had a lot of friends in the service,” Robert shared. But they returned to their hometowns all across the country — Missouri, North Dakota, Oregon. He kept in touch with them through the years, but all of them are gone now.
By June of 1953, Robert had married, and the couple settled in the Reading area. They went on to have seven children — five girls and two boys.
“Every time I came home from work there was another little girl sitting in the corner,” he quipped with a laugh.
The family moved to Worthington in 1960, and Robert spent 20 years working for Campbell’s Soup Co. He and his wife divorced in the early 1970s.
While all outward appearances show a man who adjusted from being a war hero back to civilian life, Robert — nearing his 91st birthday next month — said he still has nightmares and repercussions from his military duty.
When he first returned home, “any kind of loud noise, that would get me,” he said.
Robert has endured three major back surgeries — the injuries, he believes, stemming from those low-to-the-ground jumps he made during World War II.
“If it wasn’t for those kids, I would never be able to do it,” he said of the help his children provide for him these days.
Four years ago, Robert signed up to take the first Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota trip with his son, Bob, offering to accompany him as a guardian. As the time grew nearer for the journey, however, he became so sick he had to cancel. During the two years and four trips made from the Luverne hub, Robert said he never felt well enough to go — to see the World War II Memorial built for him and all who served.
While he may never get to see the memorial dedicated to the men and women who sacrificed so much for freedom, he does have today — Veterans Day — and it means so much to him.
“It really means to me, like solitary (time) — to sit and think and … try to remember.”