There is a reason the men and women who served the U.S. during World War II are considered “the greatest generation.” Howard Snook is one of those brave men who answered his nation’s call.
He said his military career started with a bang. He was in his mid-20s when he was drafted and was stationed in North Africa and Italy, and although times were rough, his unit tried to make the best out of it.
“We were getting shot at everyday, and our orders were to dig foxholes every night,” Snook said. “Some of the guys said, ‘I’m not doing that, Snook.’ I said, ‘OK, but don’t come crying to any of the officers when you have a big hole in your butt because you’re probably going to catch a lot of artillery.’ Every night we got bombed. That’s all there was to it. Those German planes would fly over and drop their bombs.”
He said one solider learned the hard way.
“We had one young man, he said, ‘I’m not going to dig no hole,’” Snook said. “I said, ‘OK, it’s your butt.’ So about midnight came and of course that’s the time the Germans would fly over, way up high, and drop their stuff. I heard somebody outside where I was sleeping, I said, ‘Who’s out there?’ And he said, ‘I’m the guy that didn’t want to dig a foxhole. Where can I dig?’ I said, ‘Where is your shovel, and I will help you dig one.’ Everybody dug foxholes.”
Asked whether Italy or North Africa was worse, he jokingly said it was a tie.
“I tell you, you had to be really cautious all the time because evidently when the Germans (were forced to leave) they left a lot of bad stuff,” Snook said. “They would bury some things that (if) you stepped on them, you would lose your foot. We put up with all kinds of stuff like that, but we got used to it.”
He said seeing the aftermath of what the Axis Powers unleashed was terrible.
“They set fire to homes,” Snook said. “I don’t know what those poor people did or how they got out. It was the civilians that took the beating. It wasn’t the soldiers. When it got too (rough), one day my jeep driver said, ‘I don’t think we should go out any further because there is something happening out here in front of us, and it must be bad because the MPs are all around.’ I told him, ‘We (should) keep on going,’ That’s when they hung Mussolini.”
Snook said during World War II, many people were proud to have served their country, but not everyone was happy to be there.
“They complained about (it and said), ‘What the heck are we over here for, us people, the United States? Let them fight their own battles.’ I said, ‘Well, I will put it this way: would you rather have us guys over here fighting it or would you rather be back home and fighting it?’ They never did say anymore about it, but we lost a lot of guys.”
Today’s military has high-tech gadgets, and although in WWII there were some high tech-items, Snook used technology dating to the biblical days: mules.
“We’d loaded those mules with supplies and away we’d go,” Snook said. “Of course, we would have a guy ahead of us all the time with a mine detector. We used them all the time. We had to.”
During his time in the service, he saw unspeakable things, but there was one moment he will never forget.
“We were driving down the road and of course I wasn’t driving. My buddy was driving, and the first thing I knew (is) I heard a really bad sound,’ Snook said. “Here a big old shell came right through our truck and went right threw his belly. I just took one look and I knew he was dead. So I carried him over to the side of the road, took his dog tags, one of them and left the other one with the body. Then I got the heck out of there. We were just along the side of the mountain and I’d seen a hole (that was) a pretty good size. That’s where I went and I got right on in there.”
He said luckily some soldiers noticed his truck on the side of the road and they found him.
“Thank goodness for that,” Snook said, “I didn’t know how long I was going to be in that hole.”
There was another solider whose death stuck in his mind, and Snook said his story was rather sad.
“We had a kid (and) he told me, ‘Sergeant Snook,” Snook said. “I said, ‘Call me Howard Snook. I’m just Howard Snook.’ He said, ‘I know I will never make it home.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ (he said), ‘Well, I just have a feeling that I will never make it home.’ Well his number came up, and he was bidding everybody goodbye (he was alive at the time). We got the name of his ship he was getting loaded onto to get him out of there. I don’t know how many days went by, but we got a message that (his) ship had been torpedoed and they didn’t save anybody. So that young man, he knew he wasn’t going to get home and by golly, he didn’t.”
He even had a run-in with the Military Police, and said his men thought he was going to be arrested.
“Somebody said to me, I was a sergeant then, they said, ‘Sergeant Snook, somebody’s done something bad.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ (The solider said,) ‘Well because I see a three-star vehicle pulled in out there and they are looking for somebody.’ I said, ‘It’s probably you.’ They said, ‘No it ain’t me,’ and of course they were after me. (They) wanted to get a story..I can’t remember what it was about.”
Another moment that stuck in his mind was the time he saw the Pope Pius XII, thanks in part to Catholic soldiers.
“I said (to the Catholic soldiers), ‘You know I am not Catholic,” Snooks said. They said,’Hey, we don’t care, you’re something. He (the pope) came out there and the Catholics, boy they thought that was a piece of cake. I’m not Catholic but I appreciate him anyways.”
As humble as he was, Snook said he felt bad for the families of the soldiers.
“(The war made it) bad for the people back home, my parents and Helen (his wife), because they didn’t know what was going on every day,” Snook said.
For him, helping civilians was important. It did not matter if they were German, Italian or American.
“I had (a better) viewer glasses than my jeep driver, and I was looking,” Snook said. “He said, ‘What are you looking at?’ And I said, ‘There is a little girl way down there and I can tell she is all red in front — she was walking.’ He said, ‘Howard, she’s a German.’ I said, ‘Does that bother you, that she is a German or one of us?’ So we went down there (and) she was scared to death. She was afraid. I suppose she was about 4 or 5 years old and her clothes were all wet and I said to her, ‘We are going to take you to the hospital.’ She didn’t speak very good English, but I said, ‘We’re going to take care of you little gal.’ So we did and we took her. The last I saw of her (was when) the (nurses) had that gal and took her in. That’s the last I ever saw of her or heard of her.”
When it came time to come home, he said many of his men suggested that he should continue to serve.
“When us guys received the word that we were going to be discharged, some of the guys said, ‘Snook, you ought to sign up because you hardly have any time left,” Snook said. “I was Residential Supply Sergeant, and they said, ‘You can make the big time if you want to.’ And I said, ‘Look me right in the eye, I don’t want to.’ I wanted to go home and see my family.”