US Army – World War II
One way to measure military service is by counting the number of years a person actually serves. Another way is to consider how long that service continues to profoundly affect one’s life.
For Ray Bartolo, the first way adds up to three years. The second way stretches out to the rest of his life.
Ray enlisted in the army in the beginning of 1943, not long after graduating from Grove City High School. After basic training in Camp Swift near Austin, Texas, he went on maneuvers in Louisiana, then trained in Ft. Leonard Wood.
Finally, amphibious training on Clemente Island near San Diego led everyone in his unit, the 365th Field Artillery Battalion of the 97th Infantry Division, to expect to be sent to the South Pacific – even more so when their equipment was sent to Ft. Lewis, Washington.
But things don’t always go as expected in the military. The Battle of the Bulge broke out in Europe, so the 97th Infantry was sent to Europe.
Ray was a wireman in the communications section of the artillery battalion.
“The wire section lays telephone wire between the front lines and the headquarters back to the gun emplacements,” Ray said. “Our battalion had 105mm and 155mm howitzers, usually about a mile or two behind the front lines. So the guys manning the guns didn’t know what they were shooting at. A forward observer would see where the shells landed, and tell them over the phone lines whether to raise the guns or lower them, or go to the right or to the left, depending on the targets they wanted to hit.”
While Ray survived the battle, his brother Eddie didn’t.
“He was two years younger than I was,” Ray said. “I went by the cemetery where he was buried, but I didn’t know until late in 1946, after the war, that he was buried in that cemetery. It was near Acton, Belgium.”
After the Battle of the Bulge, Ray’s battalion was sent to southern Germany, where there was still a pocket of resistance near the Czechoslovakian border. That was where Ray encountered a situation which he would never forget.
“Coming back on a wire mission we came upon this huge facility,” Ray said. “We didn’t know what it was. American troops from the 90th Division were trying to break into it. The gates were charged with high voltage electricity, and we had to wait until it was turned off before we could actually break the gates in.”
It turned out to be Flossenburg Concentration Camp. What they found inside was one of the worst nightmares in human history.
“There were a whole bunch of people in there who looked like walking zombies,” Ray said. “There was a Polish doctor there. He was a Jew, and he could speak a little English, and he took us through the camp, and he showed us thecrematory. He took us into one of the barracks that the prisoners were still in. They didn’t even know that we had liberated the camp.”
What the liberators learned was even more disturbing. The camp had about 7,000 beds – actually, wooden shelves – but there had been 14,000 prisoners there. Half of the prisoners worked for 12 hours a day in an aircraft factory and a quarry while the other half were in the beds. Then they switched.
“The Germans had taken the main contingent of prisoners out and put them on death march to another camp, leaving the ones who couldn’t go, mostly women and older men, and locked the camp up and took off,” Ray said.
Of course, the Americans were totally unprepared for such an experience.
“We were 20 years old and had never even heard the term concentration camp,” Ray said.
The liberation of Flossenburg on April 23, 1945 wasn’t the end of the war for the 97th Division. As they liberated more towns, there were lots of celebrations, but those didn’t always go the way they should have.
“We had liberated Pilsen in Czechoslovakia, sort of right on the border,” Ray said. “We were in Patton’s Third Army. Just as we were ready to parade into town, a jeep comes down with a guy waving his arm. We saw him talking with our commanding officer. The next thing we knew, we saw this battalion of tanks come rumbling in and park alongside of us. This battalion had just come over from the states, had never been in battle before, and Patton thought this would be an opportunity for him to show off, because Patton was sort of a glory hunter anyway. So we stood there like a bunch of dummies while they went into the camp, and shooting guns and so on, which they had no reason to do because it was already liberated. Our battery and outfit never had a love for Patton after that.”
Even that wasn’t the end of the war for Ray’s division.
“A few days later, I was on a switchboard, because I was in the communications section. I heard through the BBC that we were one of four divisions picked to go to the Pacific theater because the war with Japan was still going on.”
The division was shipped to the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of Japan, but Japan surrendered before that was necessary.
“They decided that we were going to Japan anyway,” Ray said. “We went into Japan somewhere around the second week of September.”
While he was there, Ray was one of fifteen soldiers selected for a special mission. American Counterintelligence Corps officers were after fifteen high German officials who had fled to Japan on U-boats. They were wanted back in Germany for the war trials.
“On a certain morning 15 jeeps with the CIC guys and us all hit at the same time, at six in the morning, and got the 15 people that they were after. We brought them back to the hotel and kept them under guard for 24 hours a day until the CIC got ready to transport them to Germany.”
While Ray was in Japan, he contracted asthma.
“MacArthur had given strict orders to our air force that when they bombed Tokyo during the war that they had to stay away from the hospital,” Ray said. “They knew that eventually they would have to invade Japan, and if they ever got a foothold in Tokyo that they would need that hospital. Everything around it was bombed, but the hospital was left intact. I was sent to this hospital, and from there I was sent back to the states.”
Ray arrived in the Presidio of San Francisco on Christmas Day.
“We were escorted into the hospital, and on every bunk there were all kinds of gifts wrapped up in Christmas paper. Later in the afternoon we were given a call to order and we had to stand by our bunks. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby came in. They talked to each one of us, and gave us an envelope. There was a twenty dollar bill in every one of those envelopes. They talked to us for an hour or so in appreciation for what we had done. From there I was sent to the army hospital in Staten, Virginia, and I was discharged from there.”
Ray got home in the early part of 1946.
“When I left for the service, my dad’s hair was as black as coal,” Ray said. “This was just three years later, but his hair was white as snow. – mainly from losing my brother Eddie.”
Eventually, Eddie had his own homecoming. The Belgian government wanted to reclaim the cemetery where he was buried.
“They gave us four alternatives,” Ray said. “They could either have him sent to Flanders Field, in France, or Arlington, in Washington DC, or the military cemetery nearest to us, which at that time I think was around Harrisburg. Or he could be brought home. My parents decided if they’re going to have to move him, they’d bring him home.”
When the VFW in Grove City found out about it, they wanted to start a veteran’s section in the Grove City cemetery. Eddie was the first soldier brought back from the war to be buried there.
The family continued to grieve for Eddie.
“From 1946, until my daughter was two years old, my mother never had a Christmas tree in the house because my brother was wounded on Christmas day, and he died on New Year’s Day.”
Ray’s grief was rooted not in the loss of Eddie, but in his own experiences.
“After I got home I had continually nightmares of what I saw in Flossenburg,” Ray said. “When we went into the barracks and saw the conditions of the people in those cubicles, it imprinted on my mind. After that, anything that had to do with the army or war movies would bring back these. My folks thought I was going nuts for a long time, because I would have these periodically, and they didn’t know what was going on. They would ask me about them, and I just didn’t ever want to tell them about what I saw because it was hard to try to tell anybody. There was so many war stories, and of course my brother had been killed, they were still going through that grieving.”
The nightmares continued until 1995, the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the camp. Ray saw an article in a VFW magazine telling that a woman whose grandfather had been in Flossenburg wanted to know more about it. Ray responded to the woman, sending her photos and information. That brought him around to facing his nightmares, thus beginning a healing process that was accelerated when he was invited to talk to a group of concentration camp survivors in Pittsburgh.
“There were quite a few of them in the Squirrel Hill area. About eight of them were prisoners in Flossenburg.”
After that, Ray began to talk to about the Holocaust to anyone who would listen – service clubs such as Lions and Kiwanis, and especially students.
“Sometimes when you get maybe 200 or more in an auditorium, you know how rowdy it is,” he said. “But when I start talking about it you can hear a pin drop. That’s how much interest they show in it. They always ask about whether we hate the Germans. I tell them that’s the trouble, we have too much hate and destruction in the world today. We don’t have any love and compassion. I tell them that they are our future generation. They’re going to be our CEOs in industry, our elected officials. I talk with them so they will know the horrors of war, to want peace. I always tell them that I hope to hell that none of them ever have to go through the horrors of a war. And that’s the way I end up my talk.”
One of his most important talks was before an audience of only two – an interviewer and a video camera man at his home in Greenville, PA. It was part of a project to record the remembrances of people who had personally experienced the Holocaust. The tape is now a permanent part of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.
After the interview, Ray received a thank you letter that sums up his contribution:
“In sharing your personal testimony as a liberator of the Holocaust, you have granted future generations the opportunity to experience a personal connection with history. Your interview will be carefully preserved as an important part of the most comprehensive library of testimonies ever collected. Far into the future, people will be able to see a face, hear a voice, and observe a life so that they may listen and learn, and always remember. Thank you for your invaluable contribution, your strength, and your generosity of spirit.”
The letter was signed by the chairman of the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, Stephen Spielberg, Academy Award winning director of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.