Veteran recalls World War II battles in France and Germany

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 24, 2008

By Diane Penning, special to the Tribune

On Dec.11, 1941, Germany officially declared war on the United States. When Albert Lean Chester Dahl turned 19 the following year, his whole world changed. He left his job at the Wilson & Co. packing plant and signed up for the U.S. Army, serving in the 2nd Armored Division. Dahl and his fellow soldiers would spend the next few years on foreign ground and endure the most difficult days of their lives.

Dahl, 85, first entered boot camp at Fort Campbell in Kentucky where he honed his defense skills during his first year in the military and even began training other soldiers how to use their weapons, defend themselves and hopefully survive the experience they were about to face.

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The 2nd Army Division is called &8220;Hell on Wheels.&8221; His division boarded a hastily constructed Victory ship that would take American military personnel to Glasgow, Scotland. Their 27-day trip gave them a lot of time to think about what lay ahead. An additional year of training in England prepared them for what came.

&8220;Hitler was taking over the world,&8221; Dahl said. &8220;We needed to stop him before he took over Europe, so our division was ready to do what they needed to defend our country and the countries he was trying to control.&8221;

More than 4 million U.S. military personnel fought in this battle, according to Dahl, and their mission was to do what they could to stop German F&#x;hrer Adolf Hitler&8217;s military machine and liberate the countries he invaded. They set out to do just that when they arrived in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

The beach assault began at 6 o&8217;clock that morning and U.S. troops began to fight their way onto the shore. More than 4,500 Allied soldiers were killed on the beaches, leaving the water blood red and covered with the bodies of the men who were part of the first assaults. Dahl&8217;s division was assigned to move in at 10 a.m. and the sight that beheld them would remain forever etched in their minds. There were many obstacles for the troops to overcome, but their determination and drive held off the 75,000 German soldiers until U.S. reinforcements arrived, and one week later, they were victorious in their efforts.

Dahl escaped serious injury when a fellow soldier walking next to him stepped on a personnel mine, which took his life with the flying shrapnel catching Dahl in the hand. At the height of the fighting, Dahl was able to find a medic, who then pulled out the shrapnel and wrapped his hand in bandages, which allowed Dahl to continue his duties. The Allied forces continued to move forward, holding back the Germans during battles in the coming weeks and months.

&8220;As we continued to hold back the Germans, they tried to break out and began clashing with the American soldiers,&8221; Dahl said. &8220;I went through 21 boxes of 50-caliber bullets for my machine gun. Lots of people lost their lives during the Death Night clash on June 29, 1944, and I&8217;ll never forget all the terrible things that happened.&8221;

After the Allied troops gained control at Saint-L™, they continued on through France, then to Belgium, Holland and into Germany. The war culminated in the Battle of the Bulge from mid-December 1944 through most of January 1945.

&8220;We were in Germany,&8221; Dahl said, &8220;and the Germans started going back through Belgium at about midnight on that Christmas Eve. The weather was cold and rainy and then changed to snow. We ended up with four feet of snow, minus-10-degree temperatures, and we had no warm weather gear and couldn&8217;t dig any protective holes in the ground, because it was frozen.

&8220;We didn&8217;t have any way to keep warm, as we had no heaters in the military vehicles and there were usually no buildings for us to go into for protection. When possible, we would stand up next to the military tanks&8217; exhaust area to keep warm and many of us ended up with frostbite on our feet, hands and ears.&8221;

During one of these cold nights, Dahl and another soldier started to dig a hole in the ground to protect themselves from enemy soldiers and to keep warm. A French soldier came up to them and said they couldn&8217;t dig in that area, because of a waterpipe underneath the ground. They ended up digging another foxhole a short distance away to avoid the Screaming Mimis (German rocket artillery) that were flying overhead and also to avoid detection.

Soon, shelling began again and Dahl quickly rolled into this new hole with his buddy ending up tumbling into the hole on top of him during the chaos. The first shell to hit the ground actually hit the first hole they had attempted to dig, which would have meant they both would have died.

&8220;I actually owe my life to that French man,&8221; Dahl said, &8220;but my buddy that fell into the second hole on top of me was killed, and I remained safe, again, so far.&8221;

The American soldiers would sleep in houses, whenever possible, but sometimes had to dig holes next to the military tanks to protect the equipment from enemy attacks. One night, Dahl and another soldier found a house about 1,000 feet from one of these tanks. They took turns sleeping and keeping guard over their fellow soldiers. When it was Dahl&8217;s turn to stand guard, one of the soldiers was asked to return to his watch but did not come for his scheduled guard duty. This soldier was later found to be missing and no one knew his whereabouts.

Six weeks later, they learned that several German soldiers were hiding in the basement of the house they took refuge in and when Dahl left for guard duty, the Germans took the remaining soldier as a prisoner of war. Fortunately, this captured soldier was later found and returned to his unit safely.

Multiple battles were fought through April 9, 1945, when the Allied Forces met the Russians on the Elbe River. It was during this time that Dahl sustained his second injury. He was hit by flying shrapnel and still carries some of the pieces in his leg &8212; a haunting memory and unusual souvenir of World War II.

&8220;This war was a very bad experience,&8221; he sadly said. &8220;When you have so many close calls, it bothers you. There are lots of soldiers that have post-traumatic stress disorder, which continues to cause problems for them.&8221;

Of the 250 men of the 2nd Armored Division who began their journey with Dahl, only four returned from the battlefield. Many of these fallen soldiers did not return to American soil but were buried in cemeteries in France and Germany. Dahl would like to return to their places of burial to pay his respects and maybe even put to rest some of the haunting memories he experienced during his time in World War II.

When asked about the current war in Iraq, Dahl stated, &8220;We should not be over there. This war was brought on by false information and has continued on too long.&8221;

He said he felt compassion for the young men and women who were now fighting in the Middle East and he wishes they could return safely to their homes and families soon.

For his bravery, Dahl was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He received the Normandy Award, which originally was a certificate from the people of Normandy, because they could not afford any type of medal at that time. Just four years ago, Dahl was presented with a special medal from the citizens of Normandy for his contribution to the war effort that saved them from Hitler&8217;s regime. His trophy case also boasts the five battle stars, the Belgian fourrag/re (a special cord worn on the uniform), the Presidential Unit Citation for his unit&8217;s contribution to Death Night, and the World War II Victory Medal.

These medals are sometimes a haunting reminder for Dahl about his days in the war and the fellow soldiers who lost their lives during this conflict. He said he is proud of his participation in the war effort and has talked with area organizations about his time overseas, in the hope that sharing his experiences will help the younger generation understand the difficulties of war and its aftermath.

His wife, Jewell (Steene), whom he married in 1947, are the proud parents of two daughters, Cynthia Dahl of Albert Lea, and Deborah Schwab, who lives in South Dakota. They also shared their life with two sons, Bruce (Hoss) and Danny, who are now deceased. The Dahls&8217; lives now are filled with good memories and special times with their four grandkids and four great-grandchildren, but Chester Dahl&8217;s thoughts and memories still remain with his fallen comrades on the banks of Normandy and battlefields of Europe.