“I can honestly say that I saw blood, sweat, and tears as we struggled through each day of war.” At age 94, Norbert Reicks of Lawler is among the very few can tell us about his service during World War II. Last year he shared his story with us and I want to share it with you. He is under hospice care in a New Hampton facility at this time.
T. SGT. Norbert J. Reicks, at the innocent age of 22, has seen many tragic moments during WWII that has stayed with him all his life. While overseas he is proud to say that he did serve as 1st Army under General Patton in Africa, part of the 3rd Army under General Patton in Sicily, a member of the 5th Army under General Mark Clark in Italy, the 7th Army under General Patch in France and Germany, and part of the 9th Army under General Hodges when transferred into the 69th Division on his way back to the States. His first Armored Group stayed in Germany. As part of the Occupation Army, he had 34 months of overseas duty and received 5 battle stars and a good conduct medal.
Norbert is grateful that he had the opportunity to come back home after serving his country, “I was one of the lucky ones, I had only two teeth knocked out when a shell exploded and a rock hit my mouth and also a small shrapnel wound on one leg compared to my comrades who received the Purple Heart for very serious injuries and/or loss of life.”
During the tour overseas he had met many dignitaries which include King George VI in Africa, General Eisenhower, General Patton, General Omar Bradley, General Mark Clark, and met twice with General Charles De Gaulle.
In early 1942, Norbert was drafted and inducted into the army at Fort Des Moines. After basic training, he trained for Armored Force Maintenance School for wheeled vehicle and tank school besides other schooling. In December of 1942 he was moved to Camp Kilmer, NJ. Then that fateful day arrived on January 2, 1943, when they were loaded on an old Dutch Freighter converted into a troop ship and made their 13 day journey to join American Forces in North Africa. All the training in the world could not have prepared this small town Iowa boy of 22 for what he would see and endure before he was discharged October 2, 1945.
On the thirteen day trip across the Atlantic Ocean in a convoy of about 40 ships, they were attacked many times by German submarines. Norbert would spend much of his time tucked in a tiny bunk bed, as “the soldiers were packed in like sardines” and many times went without food. But lucky enough, their ship made the passage, not all of the 40 ships survived the attacks.
After their arrival, they were in charge of hauling the 3rd Infantry Division to the front lines which was near the Tunisian Border. It wasn’t long before the German Army in Africa surrendered.
Later he became part of the 34th Division Recon Troop. Since he came from a family that spoke German, he would go into enemy territory and bring back the vital information to help win the war. He would go days without sleep and walk back in the night, so not to be seen. Sometimes his own army didn’t believe he was an American undercover soldier when getting back from a recon mission behind enemy lines. Norbert laughs, “I had to use a lot of swear words in English before they believed me.” They fought along the western coast of Italy and they captured the city of Salerno, the big seaport city of Naples, and then they kept moving up north through the central part of the mountain country.
“The weather turned rainy, icy, and very cold. We were poorly equipped with poor combat boots and our feet were wet most of the time. We would wring the water out of our socks twice a day and take the dry socks, which were tucked against our body above the belt to stay dry. It was a miserable winter with bombing and shelling going on 24 hours a day. We were supplied with food and ammo in places in the mountains by mule train. By December 1943 we advanced to near Monte Casino in Italy. Our forces attacked many times with severe loses on both sides. In early 1944, our US Air Force with many B-17 Bombers destroyed the Benedictine Monastery and we had a bird’s-eye view watching the destruction. Our forces made a few more attacks without success. Finally, we were pulled back after about three months of constant combat without any change of clothes. Many of the soldiers were sick.”
Sadly, Norbert reminders the horrific sights he had seen that to him feel like yesterday, “As we pulled back, we walked over perhaps 1,000 dead soldiers, both American and German. We went back to a rest area, and I went on sick call. I had such swollen feet I could not get my shoes on anymore. My tonsils were swollen to the point that I struggled to get air and had a bad case of bronchitis. After a 10 day stay I left the hospital tent with many new medicines and recovered quickly.” He went back to a replacement center (replacing casualties) and waited to find out where he would be sent to next. This time he finally got to do what he was trained to do in the First Armored Group. Moving up north to the city with the Leaning Tower of Pisa, they halted there for about a month waiting to see if the D-Day invasion was successful. Not long after that he fought at the Battle of the Bulge.
His memories of the Battle of the Bulge were not all battle related, “After the battle I was writing a letter home and a soldier named Bill Bilrough from the mountains of North Carolina said to me, ‘I wish I could write.’ He had been overseas for over two years and had never received a letter. Like any soldier in battle, I helped my fellow comrade in the ‘battle of illiteracy.’ About a month after he mailed his letter, he got a reply. As I read to him, I looked up at his face where tears were running down his cheeks. I can honestly say that I saw ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ as we struggled through each day of war.”
“Near Frankfurt, Germany we moved east and south. Our tanks moved quickly through this area leaving pockets of German soldiers. All personnel had to get the soldiers or make them surrender. With the knowledge of the German language, I convinced the Germans to surrender. At first it took awhile to convince them because they were told that they would become prisoners of Russia. When they finally surrendered, the first thing they would ask for was a cigarette. As we continued flushing out these pockets, I decided to use a different method and immediately offered the nicotine starved German soldiers cigarettes, and they came right out with their hands up! One time we had as many as a thousand following us to the Prisoner Staging Area moving on through Southern and Eastern Germany,” explained smart Norbert.
“When the war ended, we were in the German city of Munich. We moved back to Mannheim, Germany and stayed there until we were called to go home. While there, I received a three day pass to Paris. This was the first time in over two and a half years that I had slept in a bed.”
There was a point system and you needed 80 points to be excused from going to fight in the Pacific against the Japanese. Luckily, Norbert had 90 points and was able to begin his long journey home.
In 1989, Uncle Norbert and my father, Linus Elsbernd, went to Germany to visit relatives. They met Norbert’s second cousin, Herman Heiznk. He had been with the Herman Horing Panzer Division during the war, the best tank division in the German Army. They soon realized they fought against each other during WWII. After telling Norbert he was a “Dumbkoff” they began to laugh. Norbert says, “I guess time can mend some of the bad memories and ill feelings caused by the war.”
Thankfully, The Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum in Waterloo has a audio tape interview with Norbert if you want to hear more of Norbert’s stories.
Our veterans have profoundly shaped our country’s history. The prosperity and freedom we enjoy today are directly related to their service and commitment. Their devotion to our nation’s fundamental principles is a valuable legacy to be shared by all. They are our Nation’s Heroes.