World keeps turning. Another soldier enters it. Good to know that there are more than 2 of them alive who had something to do with the liberation of the train. I got a phone call last week from a gentleman in Pennsylvania. We have found another soldier, or more correctly he has found us! Mr. Gantz talked about the trauma experienced by the soldiers in treating the survivors on the train.
Soldiers Walsh and Gross discover the train and save them, Towers transports them to safety and out of harm’s way, Gantz stays with them and nurses them back to health, or buries them at the cemetery in Hilersleben…
Later, I found this newspaper article below.
Innocence of youth helped Walter ‘Babe’ Gantz treat wounded soldiers, concentration camp survivors
Walter “Babe” Gantz has a ready explanation for how he coped with the horrors of war.
“I was young and carefree, as they say. And foolish, perhaps,” he said with a chuckle.
He was also very brave.
The South Scranton man spent World War II serving as a combat medic with the 9th Army’s 95th Medical Battalion. A surgical team technician, he treated infantrymen suffering from a litany of unspeakable battle injuries, earning the Combat Medics Badge, Bronze Star and Army Commendation Medal in the process.
Most notably, he tended to the emotionally scarred men who fought in the fiercely contested Battle of Hurtgen Forest, and, at the very end of the war, a train full of survivors from the infamous Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp.
He was barely 20 years old at the time.
“I was a tough cookie,” said Mr. Gantz, who just turned 86. “It was tough, but in simple terms, I weathered the storm.”
Enlisted in 1943
Mr. Gantz joined the service in March 1943, less than a year after graduating from Scranton Central High School.
He was sent first to Camp Grant, Ill. Testing there showed that he had an exceptional IQ, so the Army gave him the opportunity to leave his training to take courses at the University of Illinois. The opportunity thrilled him, but after a while he got the sense that he had bigger priorities.
“I thought, ‘There’s a war going on, and I’m going to college? This doesn’t make any sense,’” Mr. Gantz said.
Despite coming from a hunting family and being “weaned on guns,” Mr. Gantz was placed with the medical corps instead of the infantry.
Before heading overseas, he spent time in South Florida, where in February of 1944 he volunteered to take part in a top-secret military experiment in which he and other GIs tested clothing that would be used in the event of a chemical weapon attack.
During the tests, a Canadian bomber plane would fly over the swamps and spray Mr. Gantz and the other volunteers with mustard gas and other chemicals. He ended up with blisters the size of half dollars on his back, but fortunately nothing more serious than that. (Unlike the First World War, neither the Germans nor the Allies resorted to chemical weapons during World War II.)
“My dear parents never knew I was there,” Mr. Gantz said, adding the Army threatened to throw him in Leavenworth Prison if he told anyone about the program.
His involvement in the program earned him the Army Commendation Medal, and he was offered an honorable discharge following the experiments. However, he declined, instead opting to join the 95th Battalion, first in England and then onward to France.
A technician 4th grade, Mr. Gantz was part of a surgical team led by an orthopedic surgeon from Toledo, Ohio. They worked 12-hour shifts out of large tents located about seven miles from the front lines.
As such, they were never out of the combat zone, and several men from his company were killed by German artillery fire.
“I got lucky,” he said. “You’re young. You realize you’re in danger, but you just don’t delve into it.”
There was no shortage of wounded soldiers to treat. He did plenty of stitching, helped out with a number of amputations, subdued and restrained scores of mangled and bloodied young men writhing in utter agony. Often, he was called upon to do things “nurses couldn’t do today,” he said.
One time, a soldier from the 2nd Ranger Battalion came in strapped to a gurney. They thought they had him sedated, but the guy sprung up and punched Mr. Gantz in the face. He lost one of his front teeth and had to get a bridge implant. To say the least, dental work in freezing cold temperatures is far from the most pleasant thing in the world, he said.
Fatigue treatments limited
By the fall of 1944, the 95th Battalion was stationed at the Belgian-German border. During that time, Mr. Gantz and the other members of the unit treated men injured during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, a particularly brutal series of battles between the Americans and the Nazis that didn’t end until February 1945. The number of casualties was horrendously high – over 30,000 on the U.S. side alone.
Many of the men Mr. Gantz’s unit treated were suffering from “combat fatigue,” or what’s more commonly referred to today as post-traumatic stress syndrome. There wasn’t a whole lot they could do for them, he said, other than sedate them for 48 hours and give them sodium pentothal, i.e. “truth serum,” to get them to open up about the source of their distress.
“We had to strap them down because they would get violent,” Mr. Gantz said. “They would scream. They would have to relive that situation where they lost it.”
That winter, Mr. Gantz helped treat the wounded at the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes region, and by the spring of ’45 his unit had made its way into Germany.
In mid-April, they were in the town of Hillersleben setting up a displaced persons hospital when the Allies came across a train that had come from the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, where over 35,000 people, the vast majority of them Eastern European Jews, had died of typhus during the first few months of that year.
All told, there were roughly 2,400 emotionally damaged, disease-ridden and terribly malnourished people aboard the train. “Walking skeletons” was an apt description, according to Mr. Gantz.
“We weren’t knowledgeable about these (concentration camps) at the time,” said Mr. Gantz, who visited Bergen-Belsen days after it was liberated. There, he saw countless dead bodies “strewn everywhere.”
“It was hard to explain,” he said. “I cried. And then I prayed for these people. Not only were you angry about what happened, but you felt so helpless.”
Mr. Gantz’s unit spent about six weeks treating the survivors. A good 70 or 80 of them died, mostly of typhus. Among the biggest challenges was acquiring enough food supplies to feed them all. Many could only take their nourishment intravenously.
“A lot of them, if you were to give them food, they would gorge themselves and kill themselves. You had to be very careful as to what they ate,” he said. “Boy, oh boy, they would scream. Those screams would go right through your body.”
“Hillersleben was a living nightmare,” he added. “You don’t shake these horrible scenes from one’s mind.”
When the Germans surrendered that May, Mr. Gantz was sent to the Arles Staging Area in Marseilles, France, where he would wait to be deployed to Japan. He spent the next few months playing in a GI softball league.
In August, he was scheduled to set sail for the South Pacific on the USS Santa Maria. That was until the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead, the Santa Maria took him back to the States, arriving in Boston on Sept. 1.
Given all he had seen, the adjustment back to the normal rhythms of civilian life was a difficult one for Mr. Gantz.
While a lot of the vets he knew took refuge in the bottle, Mr. Gantz found solace in a life filled with family, faith (“I’ll say I’m a spiritual individual,” he said), hard work and community service. He and wife, Jeanie, raised three daughters. For 28 years, he worked as a material collector at Lucent Technologies. He helped bring slow-pitch softball to the Scranton area, and became a committed volunteer for the local chapter of the American Red Cross.
The war never left him, though, and for years Mr. Gantz took part in reunions with other members of the 95th Medical Battalion. They talked about a lot of things, but never discussed the horrors of Hillersleben.
The reunions came to an end quite some time ago, because, Mr. Gantz explained, “there’s only a handful of us left.” Which means it’s now up to him and the few remaining others to carry on the 95th’s legacy. Certainly, it’s one worth preserving.
Meet Walter ‘Babe’ Gantz
Residence: South Scranton
Family: Wife, Jeanie; three daughters, Debbie, Linda and Doreen; one grandson. He is the son of the late Frank and Rose Gantz.
Education: Graduate of Scranton Central High School
Professional: Prior to retirement, he worked as a material collector at Lucent Technologies for 28 years
Military service: A technician 4th grade with the Army’s 95th Medical Battalion serving in the European Theater during World War II, Mr. Gantz was part of a surgical team that treated wounded infantrymen, including those that fought at the Battle of Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. Toward the end of the war, his unit treated survivors from the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. He is a recipient of the Combat Medics Badge, Bronze Star and Army Commendation Medal.