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Our War: Infantryman in line of fire left with permanent leg injury

Henry Eversmann in Italy.
Henry Eversmann in Italy.

Henry "Hank" Eversmann's bum right leg caused him a lot of pain as a carpenter and still inspires choice words if it gets knocked.

He's glad to have lived with it. The alternatives were not good.

"Christ, I thought I'd never get back here," he said.

Military doctors operated three times to fight the infection after Sept. 29, 1944, when shrapnel from a German 88mm artillery shell found Eversmann taking refuge under a tank in the Vosges Mountains of France.

"We didn't like tanks. They always drew fire for us infantry boys."

Eversmann was drafted in March 1943, fresh from Cathedral High School and working for Armor Packing in East St. Louis. After basic training at Scott Field near Belleville, he was shipped to North Africa with the 36th Infantry Division.

He was part of an anti-tank gun crew, but there were no tanks when they invaded Italy, so he found himself toting a rifle in the infantry through the mud and mountains.

"We'd sleep in foxholes in the mud and rain. People don't understand how you can take that, but we were young and strong," he said. "You know, we'd be on the line 30-40 days. Eating them cold rations, D-bars and K-rations."

When they pulled back, comforts made an impression.

"They'd give us new clothes and, oh, my god, you felt like you were ready to go to the ball. Boy, them (old) clothes would stand up in the corner with mud," he said. "They'd always have a hot kitchen come up and give you hot chow. Boy, that was pretty good, regardless of what it was, I mean it could have been anything, but it was HOT. ... We'd get ahold of a jug of vino with the Italian guys. You know, I think they made it one day, and we'd drink it the next."

He, his buddy Steve Evanich, of Ohio, and two others were in an artillery hole when a mortar came in. Shrapnel hit Evanich, leaving him a paraplegic for life, but none of the others were hurt.

"It knocked me about half silly. I didn't know what had happened," Eversmann said.

He had to leave his buddy behind for the medics as they moved across an open field toward the German positions "and hope we didn't find them."

Evanich underwent 53 surgeries in his life, but learned to bowl and lived into his 80s. Eversmann lost track of him about 12 years ago, then tried to track him down a few years back on a whim, only to learn his buddy had died two weeks earlier.

"His wife said his last words were `I wonder how my old buddy Hank is doing," Eversmann said. "You sleep with a guy in a hole and you get to know his life story, and he knows yours. You get pretty close."

Another buddy didn't survive. Tech Sgt. Marlin "Arab" Butler got his nickname because he was from Arab, Ala.

"A couple of Germans acted like they were surrendering. The first lieutenant and Butler came out from behind a tank, and the other Germans cut them down. I can still see him jump in the air when he was hit. He was dead when he landed."

Eversmann remembers being "volunteered" by his squad sergeant for night patrols, trying to determine enemy strength, positions and weapons. It was scary, especially when he was close enough to hear German soldiers talking.

"You'd hit a little pebble and it would sound like an avalanche," he said. "You'd think, `Why the hell did he pick me?'"

Another time his squad found themselves in a mine field after dark and a "Bouncing Betty" was triggered, sprung up about waist high and exploded. The survivors had to crawl single-file behind one guy who probed the soil with a bayonet to find a path back out.

In January 1944, he was at the Battle of Monte Cassino, when German 88mm artillery was killing allied troops in the valley and using the historic abbey founded by St. Benedict as an observation point.

Eversmann was tasked for two weeks with hauling food and ammo to the front lines through mortar, artillery and machine gun fire. He was awarded the Bronze Star for risking himself so the other soldiers didn't have to come off the line and expose themselves.

Allied bombers finally destroyed the abbey, a decision that went all the way up to FDR.

Cassino and an assault on the Rapido River left the 36th Infantry Division seriously depleted, but by June 1944, Eversmann and his division were marching through Rome. The procession took all day.

"They were kissing the GIs and giving us wine. The officers just looked the other way," he said.

He saw Pope Pius XII on his balcony at St. Peter's Square.

Then on Aug. 15, 1944, Eversmann invaded Southern France.

"We heard Berlin Sally on the radio. She announced, `You boys in the 36th Division will get a big surprise when you hit the shores of Southern France.' We were kind of scared. We didn't know what the surprise was," he said. "The surprise was that there was little opposition."

He worked his way through France, and by September 1944, was within 40 miles of the Rhine in the Vosges Mountains.

He was on the outskirts of a small town when the Germans started shooting the tops of the trees with their artillery --- "tree bursts" that created flying splinters in addition to the shrapnel.

"So I got under a tank. I told the tankers I was getting under there because if they started to move I would have been flat in the mud."

The tank took a direct hit from one of the shells. Shrapnel hit Eversmann in the right leg and back.

"I was pretty bad. I still have shrapnel in my knee and back."

The tankers had a Jeep nearby, loaded Eversmann and got him to an aid station. He remembers being on the ground, looking up from his stretcher at them working on another man on a table. As soon as he was off, Eversmann was up there.

He was in military hospitals in France for six months, nearly losing the leg. The Army lost Eversmann in the system, so he got no pay or mail overseas.

Fifteen days on a hospital ship brought him back to the United States with about 500 other patients. He remembers a 20-year-old from Tulsa, Okla., who had lost both arms and both legs.

"He couldn't wait to get home and see his mom and dad. We'd carry him out on deck so he could be in the sunshine."

Another six months in hospitals followed, as well as all his mail. At least 80 percent of it was from the girl he'd dated off and on before the war.

"She loved to jitterbug. I had two left feet. We'd break up every time she found a dance partner," he said.

She sent her picture. It's still in Eversmann's wallet.

"You would not think a picture could last 62 years."

Dorothy and Henry Eversmann will celebrate their 63rd anniversary in July.

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