104th Infantry Division World War II Veteran Mr. Leo Thoennes Joins the Puget Sound Honor Flight

11/21/2018  |  By Kelly Countryman 104th Training Division
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Leo at the World War II Memorial.

 

Last April, 47 veterans from World War II, Korea, and the Vietnam War, joined the Puget Sound Honor Flight on a trip to Washington, D.C. The Puget Sound Honor Flight is part of a national, non-profit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices. They transport America’s heroes, at no charge to the veteran, to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at their memorials. The three-day trip includes visits to many memorials such as World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Women’s Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and many others.

On this particular tour was a former Timberwolf who served with the 104th Infantry Division during World War II, Mr. Leo Thoennes. The first thing you notice about Leo is his wide smile. To look at him, you wouldn’t guess that this charming, happy, gentle man has served in two major wars, fought in and survived the largest and bloodiest battle in American history, and took part in the liberation of a German labor camp.

Mr. John Thoennes accompanied his father, Leo from Seattle and says “As a son it was very fulfilling to provide my father what he called ‘the greatest weekend of his life.’”

Leo’s Family greet him at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Left to right: John Thoennes, Natalie Kretzschmar, Leo Thoennes, Mary Kretzschmar, Dave Kretzschmar.

 

On the last day of the tour, the Thoennes Family was joined by Leo’s grandson, John Kretzschmar who is in the U.S. Navy, training to be a pilot

 

Mr. Thoennes wrote: When you look at this picture, the guy on the left with the six stripes on his sleeve is SGT Burrous. I am second from the left. The man to my right in the picture is a SGT whose name I have forgotten. The man on the far right is Staff SGT Henry Darby. All of these men are from Battery B, 555 AAA AW Bn. we were having some beers in a bar in New York City. This was in August just before we left on the “Queen Elizabeth” for Europe.

 

Mr. Leo Thoennes receives a certificate of appreciation and a letter from Brigadier General Joseph A. Edwards III, current commander of the 104th Training Division (LT), presented by fellow Timberwolf, SGT Pearlynn Aldan.

 

Leo was recently honored for his service at the Seattle Mariners game in April, 2018.

 

John went on to add, “I can see myself doing this again but this time for another vet who does not have an escort. The Puget Sound Honor Flight people deserve all the credit, amazingly well organized and all the right stuff for thanking our vets.”

Upon arrival the Baltimore/Washington International Airport, Leo was joined by some additional Family members who live on the east coast. His daughter Mary, son-in-law Dave, and granddaughter Natalie were able to join him for most of the three-day tour.

Natalie expressed her pleasure at being able to join her grandfather. “It’s so exciting, we really didn’t think he’d be able to make it back here. To see him here at the (WWII) memorial is incredible. We have a big family and for us on the east coast to be able to share this with him is incredible. We’re definitely getting emotional. He’s so excited to be here and for me it’s a great honor.”

When the United States entered World War II, Leo was a 20-year-old bellhop working at the exclusive Milwaukee Country Club in Wisconsin.

Not long after America joined the war, Leo joined the fight himself. He says he wanted to be a pilot, but his father knew the odds of survival for pilots in wartime was terrible and he talked Leo out of it. Instead, Leo joined the United States Army. He enlisted in 1942 and went off to training. Eventually, he was assigned to the 555th Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) Battalion, also known as the “Five-by-Five.” Shortly after arriving in Europe, the “Five-by-Five” joined the 104th Infantry Division Timberwolves. The Five-by-Five were the first unit attached to the 104th Infantry Division to wear the Timberwolf patch.

In 1944, Leo sailed from New York on the Queen Elizabeth, which had been converted from a luxury cruise ship to a troop transport for the war. Leo says, “there were 18,000 troops on board the Queen Elizabeth. The British really showed us a good time – they served meals to 18,000 [troops] in a dining room made to serve 4,000. They would seat the 4,000, feed them, clean up, reset the tables and serve the next group in about 30 minutes all with great British efficiency.”

Within a few short months, the Timberwolves were deeply entrenched in the Battle of the Bulge. That battle, also known as the Ardennes Offensive, was the largest battle fought on the Western Front in Europe during World War II and is also the largest battle ever fought by the United States Army.

Leo describes the Battle of the Bulge as his most harrowing experience during the war.

“It started on December 16, 1944,” he explained. “We were not prepared for this experience. It was so cold. There was snow and fog which made it nearly impossible to see. We could not build a fire to keep warm because the enemy would spot us. We had one Army blanket and our uniforms and boots were not made for the extreme cold. As the “V-mail (Victory Mail) was quick and reliable, I wrote to my mother and asked her to send me warm boots, which she did right away. You can be sure I was very grateful.”

Leo’s memories of his time in Belgium are as sharp as that cold. “The enemy was all around us. Things were looking bad. Everything was frozen and the skies were just grey. But, I believe the war was won because of General George Patton’s Prayer. He sent a printed prayer out to 250,000 troops praying for good weather and by Christmas day, the sun was out and eventually we won the Battle of the Bulge.”

“Eventually” would happen January 16, 1945m and the true account of General Patton’s Prayer as told by the author of that prayer can be found at http://www.pattonhq.com/prayer.html.

Shortly after the Battle of the Bulge was over, the Timberwolves, while on their way to meet Russian troops coming from the east, found themselves in Germany, about two miles from the town of Nordhausen. There, the Germans had built an underground facility in two, two-mile long tunnels used to manufacture V-2 missiles. The Germans used slave labor to build and operate this facility known as Dora-Mittelbau.

Leo recalls the 104th Infantry Division entering the Dora-Mittelbau camp.

“Here we saw the most horrible sights you could imagine, he explained. “We found thousands of starved, dead bodies of the slave laborers used to build the bombs. We took the few survivors to the nearby town and made the local residents help us care for the survivors and the local men were made to bury the dead. We were told not to feed the 750 emaciated survivors, as they were so starved, that feeding them too fast or too much could kill them. Instead, they had to be cared for by the medical personnel.”

The war ended in Europe a month later on May 8, 1945., and when asked how he felt to hear the war was over, Leo said “It was kind of a letdown. I kept waiting for everyone to celebrate or cheer or something, but it was business as usual. Just another day. The only thing different that I saw was that night, all the trucks and other vehicles had their headlights on and nobody was shooting at them.”

Leo didn’t return to the states right away, instead he spent a year in Le Havre, France, helping load troops on ships headed for home. One of his fondest memories of his time is Europe is that he bought a Harley-Davidson 45 motorcycle that he drove during his last year in Europe. He hasn’t ridden a motorcycle since then, but he says he will never forget the fun he had.

When he did return to the states, things were different for him. During his service, his parents had moved from Wisconsin to Seaside, Oregon where his father took a job for the war effort building ships. Leo moved to Oregon, where he attended Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, eventually earning an Engineering degree.

In 1949, he married his wife Laverne who was a nurse who had trained at the same college in Salem.

Leo laughingly recalled they had been together for some time before Laverne mentioned that during her time at the University, she volunteered as a nurse at Camp Adair, Oregon and attended a lot of dances there where she particularly enjoyed dancing with Soldiers from the 104th Infantry Division called “Timberwolves.” Leo hadn’t told her he served with the Timberwolves and they both surprised when he did!

Called again to serve during the Korean War, Leo wasn’t sent overseas but instead he was put in charge of security at Madigan Hospital at Fort Lewis, Washington. While there, President Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur and MacArthur came back to the states to McChord Field. He wanted to visit troops at Madigan who had been wounded in Korea.

Leo was given the task of escorting MacArthur through several wards along with General Keeler, the hospital commander. After MacArthur returned to Washington DC, Leo was listening to the radio when General McArthur gave his speech before Congress when he said his famous line, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

In 2006, President George W. Bush and his wife Laura invited the remaining “Five-by-Five” members to breakfast in the White House as Mrs. Laura Bush’s father, Harold Welch had been a member of the same battalion as Leo. Leo and his family attended that breakfast and had the pleasure of meeting the president and his wife. Also, in attendance were two survivors who had been in the slave camp at Dora-Mittelbau, Nordhausen.

At the end of the tour, Leo’s daughter Mary expressed her gratitude for the opportunity to tour with the Puget Sound Honor Flight.

“I felt so privileged to be a part of the Puget Sound Honor Flight and so proud to be with my Dad and the other veterans,” said Mary. “My Dad, like many other veterans, represents what is right about our Country -- young men and women who selflessly answer the call to serve. Like many of my Dad’s era, they never asked for any special treatment, they never felt like they deserved it. Many never returned, their voices and history silenced.”

Mary counts her father as one of the lucky ones, able to return from service and return to work, life, school, marriage and family. “It was time to move to the next thing,” Mary explained.

“The world would be a different place if it weren’t for brave Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen. The World War II generation gave so much. They never asked for nor expected any praise,” Mary said. “There was no social media to give them accolades. So, what a special and unexpected treat for my Dad at 96 years young to be so wonderfully rewarded by a grateful group of people. In every step and breath of his “tour” of Washington DC, he felt so humbled and happy. We can’t thank the Puget Sound Honor Flight enough. And, thank you to all veterans! I’m a grateful American.”

Leo says what most impressed him on this trip was “the way everyone accepted me as though I was a friend. Everyone accepted everyone.”

Standing outside the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C., Leo was asked how he felt about the Puget Sound Honor Flight and all it offered.

“I feel humbled by all this honor.” Leo said. “I don’t feel I deserve to be called a hero.”

But Leo, like the other veterans of World War II, is a hero. If you don’t agree, just ask the survivors of Dora-Mittelbau.

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