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Russell Anderson was advancing on Berlin when WWII came to end

“We were 50 miles from Berlin when the war ended,” Kenmare resident Russell Anderson said about his final days of service during World War II. “I never did get to Berlin. By then, I’d been on the run for so damn long, I was ready to go home.”

11/09/11 (Wed)

 

“We were 50 miles from Berlin when the war ended,” Kenmare resident Russell Anderson said about his final days of service during World War II. “I never did get to Berlin. By then, I’d been on the run for so damn long, I was ready to go home.”

 

As one of North Dakota’s WWII veterans, Russell and his daughter, Terri Hoskins of Maxbass, traveled with the final group of 240 veterans to make the Roughrider Honor Flight from Bismarck to Washington, D.C. last May. Russell didn’t intend to go on the overnight tour and visit to the World War II Memorial until his grandchildren started encouraging him.

 

“I could have signed up for one of the earlier flights, but I didn’t feel like it,” he said. “When [granddaughter] Ronda got started on me, it was a different story.”

 

Ronda, Terri’s daughter and a business teacher in Glenburn, submitted the paperwork on behalf of her grandfather with Terri as the designated escort.

 

As the two made their first trip to the nation’s capital, they were both grateful for Ronda’s persistence.

 

Served in European Theatre

Given Russell’s war experiences, he was fortunate to become a father and grandfather. One of 10 children born to his parents in Minnesota, he was drafted 70 years ago in November 1941 at the age of 21 and first sent to an Army camp in Des Moines, IA. From there he traveled to Camp Polk in Louisiana, where he completed basic training and the necessary training to become a mechanic.

 

“We left the swamps and then trained in the Mohave Desert in California for three months,” he said. “The three hottest months of the year.”

 

Russell continued a list of his training locations, including two months in Virginia, nine months in Pennsylvania and eight months in England. “Then June 6th, 1944, came around and I went to France,” he said.

 

As part of the invasion force, Russell was assigned to the third Armored Division, in the maintenance company of the 33rd Armored Regiment. “We took our tanks and just drove right in the water,” he said. “When the tanks came, the bodies [of soldiers killed by the Germans] had to float away.”

 

Russell couldn’t make time for sentiment that day. “We got up out of the water and went up on the bank,” he said. “We had to take the waterproofing off our tanks.”

 

As his company worked, they discovered and captured three German soldiers in the immediate area. “They had bread loaves with green mold on them,” Russell recalled. “They didn’t want us to take that away from them. We turned them over to some lieutenant, got our tanks ready and away we went.”

 

Russell rolled with his tank and his company across France until August 2nd. “They lobbed a shell between me and the tank,” he said. He took some shrapnel close to his spine and was sent to Bristol, England to recover.

 

“I was in the hospital there about six weeks, then they sent me back to France and put me in a boxcar,” he said. “I went right back to my old outfit. Right back to my old tank.”

 

The company made their way in to Belgium, where the women welcomed the soldiers and cooked waffles for them. “I mean, they were good,” Russell said. “They would get mad because we couldn’t eat all of them!”

 

The fighting continued right up until Christmas, when Russell’s company was pulled back to celebrate the holiday with dinner. The German front eased their operations, too, but guards from both sides watched each other and Russell that day, who was out repairing a tank and taking it for test runs, which made both sides uneasy.

 

“After that, it was the same old thing,” he said. “It was fight, fight, fight, right into Germany. They told us we were the first ones there, but everyone says that.”

 

The American troops made progress as the Germans fell back, but Russell’s company ran into intense resistance three days before the actual surrender. “They told us the Germans were done fighting,” he said.

 

His company had arrived at a small German town near the Alps, fortified with an old stone wall. The soldiers had settled into a house for the evening but were awakened by gunfire about 3 am.

 

“We got out of there with just the clothes we had on,” he said. “They captured our company, but another outfit moved in and got the Germans out of there. Our company came out all right. It just lasted through the night.”

 

As the Germans actually surrendered, Russell’s duties shifted from mechanic’s work to guard patrol. “There wasn’t that much to do except watch prisoners,” he said. “You always had a gun on your side and you couldn’t be scared to use it.”

 

Russell was discharged in October 1945 and returned to Camp McCoy in Minnesota. “I had five brothers besides myself in the service,” he said, explaining one served in the Navy and the rest in the Army. The Anderson boys saw duty in both the European and Pacific theatres, as well as stateside managing prisoners from the war.

 

“Five of us came home,” Russell said. “The brother two years younger than me was buried in Germany.” Eventually, his brother’s body was shipped home.

 

After Russell’s return, he found jobs locally, but by 1950 he made his way out to the Kenmare area. “When I got to Minot, I went to the unemployment office,” he said. “I wanted work, and they said there was a couple coming in from a farm by Coulee.”

 

Oscar Lehman of the Coulee area became Russell’s employer for the next four years. Soon after settling into his new position, Russell attended a dance in the area and met his future wife Marlys.

 

“My tank’s name was Marlys,” Russell said, adding that despite his own wound, his tank merely had scars from getting hit by shells and shrapnel. “Being in a maintenance company, all our tanks had to start with the letter ‘M,’ and I’ve been stuck with Marlys ever since.”

 

“I thought he was kidding me at first!” Marlys added.

 

The two married in 1952. They raised their daughter Terri and son Ben, who now lives in Wisconsin with his wife Dee.

 

Grateful for the

Honor Flight opportunity

When Russell and Terri made the Honor Flight trip, they were impressed by the smooth organization and number of sights they had the opportunity to see. They enjoyed the various memorials and were impressed by the architecture and design across the National Mall and throughout the city.

 

Arlington National Cemetery made an impact, too. “We saw all those white gravestones, thousands of them,” Russell said.

 

“They told us 30 to 40 soldiers are buried there each day,” added Terri.

 

Russell enjoyed both the V-Mail he received during the trip from students in Bismarck schools and the response from strangers while visiting the World War II Memorial.

 

“People of every age imaginable came up and put a hand on his shoulder and hugged him, so many times,” Terri said. “Teenagers even. I was impressed, I really was.”

 

Russell and Terri also took time at the Memorial to pay tribute to Russell’s brother. “They have a registry, so we went to the information desk and got help from a guide there,” Terri said. “We found Dad’s brother’s name in the registry.”

 

For Russell, who returned home alone and with no fanfare in 1945, one of the best parts of the Honor Flight was the arrival back in Bismarck. “We got a real reception,” he said.

 

“They had every branch of the service represented,” Terri said. “There was a band playing, people were waving flags and cheering. We just want to thank the people who made this trip possible, to the ones who donated the money and the ones who volunteered as helpers.”

 

Russell traveled on the same Honor Flight as Jim Hillestad of Kenmare, but he didn’t know any of the other veterans along for the trip. “I haven’t seen anybody that I served with in the Army since I got out,” he said.

 

Still humble about his military service, Russell does take pride in his work ethic during the war. “I was trained to be a tank mechanic and that’s what I was,” he said.

 

Terri interjected that her father was actually the tank commander, who achieved the rank of sergeant.

 

“Somebody had to be the boss,” Russell explained, “but I still had to work!”