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October 12, 2008

Life as a target: Soldier served with Patton during war

"Got damn it's hot out here," the jokester said. Then Heltzel saw the three gold stars. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. spent much of that day during World War II in Heltzel's machine gun emplacement at the front.

"Got damn it's hot out here," the jokester said.

Then Heltzel saw the three gold stars.

Gen. George S. Patton Jr. spent much of that day during World War II in Heltzel's machine gun emplacement at the front. Heltzel said Patton was a soldier who regularly put himself on the line with his men.

"Hey, to me he was the Army. He was for us. He didn't go by the GI rules. He did the job he had to do," Heltzel said. "We got that crap in the GI paper about him slapping the guy in the hospital. When you're in the place he was at, trying to win the war -- he was a good guy. I went to the commemoration when they buried him."

Heltzel said his squad's day-long conversation with Patton was peppered with salty phrases. They covered what they had done and where they had been.

Where Heltzel had been not long before was high school in Esther, Mo., a lead mining community about 60 miles south of St. Louis.

"I graduated on a Thursday and was in the Army on a Monday," he said. That was in spring 1942.

Heltzel became part of Patton's 3rd Army, 71st Infantry Division, 5th Infantry Regiment. He spent the war on a .30-caliber light machine gun.

Machine gunners were targets. He had his machine guns shot and destroyed. He had three different six-man squads shot from around him, all either killed or wounded.

Two of his assistants were killed next to him.

One was crouching with his hands in front of him, feeding the belt to the gun. A shell exploded and shrapnel went in one temple and out the other, killing him.

"He never knew what happened. He never moved. He sat there like that with his hands up still feeding the belt," Heltzel said. "I've put a lot of things out of my mind. There's a lot I don't want to remember."

Heltzel hit France 10 days after D-Day. He was to be part of the initial assault on Normandy, but his ship was torpedoed -- fortunately by a dud -- and they had to return to Southampton to have the torpedo pulled out and the ship patched.

He fought across France, Belgium and Germany. He was at the Battle of the Bulge, fighting south of Bastogne. He faced a German SS division.

"They were tough cookies."

He knows he killed enemy solders.

"You just got rid of them. You have no feelings. You're doing a job. The Germans had no regard for human life -- well, we didn't either.

"It's hard for people today to understand what we had to go through during World War II because we didn't go by the book. You just kept moving ahead and killing Germans. We never killed any civilians, but if he had a German uniform on, we shot him."

He didn't dwell on it during the war. Soldiers didn't talk about it when they came off the line. After the war it hit him.

"When I first got out, first came back and got discharged, I had a lot of sleepless nights and well, I wasn't a very good guy to live with," he said. "And then I met my wife, fell in love and here we are today."

A platoon of 75 left Fort Leonard Wood. Heltzel said he was one of 10 who made it through the war without being killed or seriously wounded.

"The Good Lord must have had his hand on my shoulder."

He had many near misses, but only twice was he hurt.

Once Heltzel was prone in the firing position and a squad member told Heltzel he'd been hit. He reach back to his rump and brought back a bloody hand.

"We'd had dysentery, so I thought the wet might be something else."

He was only grazed by the bullet.

The other injury came during the Battle of the Bulge. A German tank was firing at them as they were trying to advance. A U.S. tank came up behind him.

"They shot over my head and I was caught in the muzzle blast. That's how I lost my hearing. I was also blinded for a time."

His assistant gunner was killed and three others in his squad were lost that day. His regiment suffered 70 percent casualties.

Heltzel walked across Europe and ended the war in Steyr, Austria. His service wasn't over, though.

He was recruited into an outfit called the Fifth Infantry Soldier Chorus by Luther Ornheim. Heltzel was a baritone and went through shattered cities singing Bach, old hymns and Irving Berlin songs.

He most remembers singing at the opulent Mozarteum during the Salzburg Festival in Austria.

"We were making people happy after a very, very sad beginning. Europe was a mess. People needed something."

Heltzel said he loved the chorus and was ready to stay in the Army, but he was back home at a dance at The Hilltop in St. Genevieve when he met a girl named Imogene from Perryville. They danced to Elmo Donze's Dixieland Band and were married four months later on Nov. 7, 1946.

"I fell in love and forgot all about re-enlisting."

Contact multimedia editor Brad Weisenstein at bweisenstein@bnd.com or 239-2470.

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