Leo Versteegh remembers the exact day he was drafted for combat during WWII: June 6, 1942.
The 21-year-old native of Sully was working for the Vernon Company in Newton when he received a letter ordering him to report to Camp Carson, Colo. It wasn’t long, though, before Versteegh would head overseas as part of the Army’s 88th Infantry division.
“We went across in one of Britain’s largest boats,” he explained. “It had four smokestacks and bunks stacked up to your head ... it could have about fit the whole town of Newton, I think. The Spike Jones Band and two girl singers performed twice a day, and it took us eight and a half days to get to Glasgow, Scotland.”
In the UK, Versteegh and his outfit waited three months for their names to be chosen to head to the lines in France, all the while getting a preview of what heading into war might entail.
“I waited three months there for my name to go up on that board to go across to the lines,” he explained. “We got to go to London on the weekend by train, and we saw a bomb go through the air. Even though the blinds were down, all of a sudden they were pulled up and there was a fire bomb going through the air.”
After those three months, it was off to Italy for Versteegh and his outfit, who would soon face the cold and haunting realities of war.
“After a couple weeks we went to (France) to load up with equipment and we drove up to an airport,” he recalled. “The second lieutenant in charge of us said, ‘Those of you who haven’t had an airplane ride, you’re going to get one.’”
They flew to Florence, Italy, by way of Corsica, and entered the city under a veil of darkness.
“It was dark when we got in there, but the next morning we were up firing our rifles at four in the morning,” Versteegh said. “We had breakfast and then we got on trucks that took us to the artillery part, and there were German guns there, it was muddy — it had been raining — and dead Germans were lying around. From there we walked to the infantry and there were bombs going off the whole time, going over your head both ways.”
Florence was a city surrounded by mountains, Versteegh explained, and despite the frigid temperatures found at higher elevations, troops were offered little protection from the elements.
“The most snow we had was only about two inches,” he said. “They gave us each a blanket to wrap up in and sleep on the ground, but you survived.”
In addition to blankets, soldiers were given rations of beer, candy and cigarettes to help alleviate the dirty conditions, although Versteegh recalls that what they received wasn’t always familiar.
“Once we were at the line for over month before they let us come back, and none of us had baths,” he said. “There was a little creek running through, so people would wash their faces and things, but that was all. Then we got our beer rations and our candy bars, and they were all picked over before they got to us, so they were ones you’d never heard of. You never got Snickers or Milky Way or anything,” he added with a laugh.
Despite this, WWII on the Italian front was serious business — in fact, it was on the faces of these very mountains that Versteegh would earn his Purple Heart, following a mortar exchange with German troops.
“In the daytime, you could sometimes spot the Germans on the next mountain,” he said. “Our captain had gotten injured and we never saw him again, so we had a second lieutenant and a bunch of new recruits. The outfit I joined only had six men left because the rest were captured or killed by the Germans.”
“I was there only a short time when this new lieutenant came in, and he had us out in the daytime right across this mountain loaded with Germans,” Versteegh recalled. “He didn’t realize it, I guess, but there was a small bunch of us that had small artillery lobbed at us. One landed real close and shrapnel got most of us, but I never knew how many.”
“I knew I was bleeding down my arm, and I got hit by some other pieces. One just grazed my thumb,” he said. “To get to the hospital in Florence, it took us three nights because they had to move us at night. But right after we got there, a nurse came right in and gave us our Purple Hearts.”
Shortly thereafter, Versteegh found a familiar face amid the tents of Bologna, Italy — something rather uncommon during a war with such a high casualty count.
“I had a cousin from Lynnville visit me there,” he said. “His religion wouldn’t let him carry a gun, so they put him in a hospital and he enjoyed being there.”
“I went back to my outfit after that and saw a lot of new faces because they had lost so many,” he explained. “We got new recruits pretty regular, some of them didn’t last long. There were lots of new faces, lots of them injured and killed, but that was war.”
Versteegh was stationed in northern Italy when the war on the European front officially ended. After touring Naples, Rome and Pisa, Versteegh finally headed back to the United States.
“We shipped out on a small boat like the Liberty boat, and it took us 11 and a half days to get to Newport News, Va.,” he recalled. “As we came in, the Japanese war was over, the bands were playing and people were yelling.”
This surprised Versteegh and his division, as they’d been anticipating a trip across the Pacific upon returning home.
“They sent us to Camp Sheridan south of Chicago, and our passes were for four weeks at home and then we’d come back for a trip to Japan, which was very scary,” he said. “We thought we were going to the Pacific, everyone was betting on it ... but we had our orders changed as soon as we were home because there was no more war.”
Despite his injury and subsequent Purple Heart, Versteegh remains humble toward his service to the Uniter States.
“I know lots of people saw a lot more war than me, I just saw it the last year and three months,” Versteegh said of his experience in the Army. “I was in the hospital three months, so that helped keep me alive ... but I was very lucky to come back.”
Nicole Wiegand can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 422 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.