Dick Kloss could talk all day about the horrors of World War II, but he prefers telling funny stories about military life and remembering the good friends he made while trudging across Europe with Gen. George Patton’s Third Army.
The Glen Carbon man also counts himself lucky. He’s healthy and active for a 94-year-old while many of his fellow soldiers died 20 years ago. His explanation? He never smoked.
“(The Army) used to issue us a carton of cigarettes a week for free, plus four cigarettes in our rations,” he said. “Most soldiers smoked from morning to night. It was very destructive.”
On a recent weekday, Dick was sitting at the kitchen table in the villa he shares with Virginia Kloss, 88, his wife of 64 years. She had paperwork to do but agreed to sit down for a few minutes and chat.
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“I’ve heard all these stories,” she said. “But he tells them well. It makes you want to listen. He has a talent for it.”
Dick’s memory is remarkably sharp, considering all that has happened in the seven decades since the war ended. He ran his family’s flour mill in Mount Olive for 50 years. The Klosses have four children and eight grandchildren.
Dick was a private, then private first class in the Army’s 11th Armored Division, 491st Armored Field Artillery Battalion, B Battery. Facts etched in his brain include his serial number: 17083546.
“How’s that for a memory?” asked his friend Loren Klaus, 89, a retired school superintendent and college president who lives nearby in a Meridian Village apartment.
“You had to memorize that,” Dick explained. “And if a sergeant came up and asked you for your serial number and you didn’t know it, you were in big trouble.”
U.S. soldier from German family
Dick grew up in Mount Olive, between Litchfield and Staunton, graduating from high school in 1940.
The small town is best known as the resting place of Mother Jones, a legendary labor activist buried in its Union Miners Cemetery in 1930. Dick remembers her as “a little old lady all dressed in black.”
“I was in second grade when they brought her into the Odd Fellows temple, and we had to walk by her casket,” he said. “That was probably the first dead person I had ever seen, so it was quite an occasion. Miners came from far and wide. They used to make a pilgrimage every year.”
Dick was attending Kansas State University in 1943 when he enlisted to fight in World War II. It was an odd situation since his father was a German immigrant. His mother was from Austria.
“I didn’t have any relatives (in the United States),” Dick said. “My cousins were in the German army, and only about half of them survived. Of course, I didn’t know them.”
After basic training at Camp Callan and classes at the University of California, Berkeley, Dick sailed to England with the 491st, bumping up his salary from $50 to $62 a month.
“The English girls would say the Americans were ‘overpaid, overdressed, overfed, oversexed and over here,’” he said. “To a certain extent, it was probably true. At 19 or 20 what do you expect?”
The soldiers had to spend $6.50 a month for life insurance, which paid $10,000 to their families if they were killed in action. Dick also agreed, reluctantly, to buy the $9 minimum in war bonds to avoid extra KP and guard duty.
“They wanted 100 percent compliance,” he said. “It wasn’t just my sergeant. That came all the way from Washington.”
Piccadilly Circus to the front lines
The soldiers in England were preparing for battle, but they had a little time for sightseeing. Dick remembers going to Piccadilly Circus, a famous intersection in the London suburb of Westminster.
“Prostitutes came from all over the world, and that’s where the G.I.’s flocked to check them out,” he said. “Because of our limited experience and limited income, we were just observers of the scene. But it was interesting to watch all the dickering and bargaining.”
One of Dick’s favorite stories involves a fellow soldier named Bennie. He got tired of his shoes getting wet so he sewed canvas around the bottom of his government-issued raincoat to make it longer.
Bennie thought this idea was pretty ingenious until the men were boarding a landing ship tank and he stepped on the canvas, falling face first in six inches of mud.
“Poor Bennie,” Dick said, laughing. “He didn’t get any sympathy from anybody. They had their own problems.”
The 11th Armored Division arrived in France in December 1944 and quickly joined the Allied effort to stop a massive German counteroffensive in the Ardennes Forest, a struggle that became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
From that point on, Dick was on the front lines with Patton’s Third Army, advancing into Belgium, Germany and finally Austria, where they met the Russians at Linz.
“What I want to know is, ‘How did you get trained to be on the front line?’” asked his friend, Loren. “It was learning on the job, right?”
“As a PFC, you were expendable,” Dick said. “(The commanders) had objectives, and if somebody got killed or wounded, they would just bring up a replacement. ... You didn’t help a wounded person. That was not your job. That was for the medics. They weren’t far behind.”
Months on a cold, cruel battlefield
Dick felt lucky to be part of an armored artillery battalion because it had vehicles to haul equipment and supplies while infantry soldiers carried everything on their backs.
One of the worst parts of being on the battlefield was wearing the same dirty clothing for weeks in freezing weather.
“We had long underwear and a wool uniform, and we had the old overcoat, which was very inadequate,” Dick said. “It was worthless. It was heavy, and if it ever got wet, it never dried.”
Army cooks provided warm meals whenever possible, but the men often made due with boxed or canned rations. Meat and beans was their favorite, vegetable hash their least.
Dick was able to earn extra money during the war as one of two barbers in Battery B.
“I was an amateur, but I learned,” he said. “They even issued me official scissors and clippers. ... I charged everybody, but I didn’t have the nerve to charge the officers. It was 25 cents.”
After the Allied victory in 1945, American soldiers went home partly according to family status, starting with married men with children then other married men.
“The single guys, we were the last to go,” Dick said. “But there were a lot of pretty girls our age in Austria, so it really wasn’t tough duty.”
Getting back to small-town life
Dick eventually returned to Mount Olive to work at his family’s flour mill and met Virginia at church.
“He had his uniform on, and I was in the choir loft,” she said. “He was sitting with his mother, and everybody was curious about him. They didn’t go to that church. His mother had transferred.
“Everybody was talking about how cute he was. I was only 17 years old, and what do you do when you’re 17 years old? You look at cute boys.”
Dick managed to get Virginia’s phone number through a friend and called her for a date. They went to The Coliseum in Benld, a popular dance hall. Four years later, they were married.
Over the decades, Dick talked about his military experiences with his children and grandchildren, but not often. He liked to watch TV shows and read books about World War II.
“He had lifelong relationships with some of the people he was in service with,” said his son, Mark Kloss, 62, of Edwardsville, a retired sales manager for a steel distributor. “The best man in his wedding was an Army buddy.”
Dick and Virginia attended the 50th anniversary celebration of the 11th Armored Division, which was held in St. Louis.
Looking back, Dick understands his important place in history as a World War II soldier who helped save the world from the Nazis, but he regrets that it all had to happen.
“You had 20-year-olds killing 20-year-olds,” he said. “It was pathetic. They pulled those German boys off the farms and slammed them into the army. They were no more anxious to get killed than American boys.”