East Texas WWII Veteran Has Cabinet of Service Memorabilia

Tucked neatly into locked case atop James Wilburn Wilson's cabinet of World War II memorabilia is a grim reminder of why his service was so important.

The Daily Sentinel reports there, the 92-year-old keeps a well-worn and yellowed copy of an American-produced pamphlet once distributed to German civilians about the horrors of concentration camps.

"They claimed they didn't know about it. Everybody knew better. General Patton made them take a copy of this. Every one of them. He passed out thousands of those things," Wilson said.

The pamphlet is titled KZ -- the Nazi code for concentration camps -- and the text is entirely in German. Thousands of copies were printed, but only a handful are known to still exist, according to rare bookseller Abe Books.

As a member of the 26th Infantry Division, Wilson joined in the liberation of a series of more than 100 concentration camps known as the Mauthausen-Gusen Complex on May 4, 1945.

"I was in two different camps and helped liberate them," he said. "I don't know the names of them. Half the time I didn't even know where I was at."

After capturing Linz, Austria, in May 1945 the men of the Yankee Division set forth on the camps largely filled with Jews, Catholics from Poland and Soviet prisoners of war.

"That's sickening to see people in the shape they were in. I gave them everything I had to eat. Some of them were so weak they couldn't get around. It was sickening. That made me hate the Germans more. I didn't mind shooting them after that," Wilson said.

Wilson's shelves of memorabilia also feature photographs, Nazi buttons, bayonets and shoulder patches, all of which tell their own story.

He's also got a shadowbox full of medals that took decades to get after his military records were lost.

Part of that loss happened when the National Personnel Records Center in Overland, Missouri, burned in 1973, but the rest came from the results of seasickness, measles, and the butt of an M1 carbine.

Wilson's life in the Army, like so many young men during World War II, began with the draft.

"When I got 18, they didn't lose no time calling me to Tyler to be examined," he said.

The Army saw potential and soon sent him to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he trained as a machine gunner. Uncle Sam gave him a 47-inch Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR, and sent him on his way to Europe.

He hadn't even made landfall before he came under attack. Wilson's not sure if the boat hit a mine or was hit by a German bombardment that happened the same day.

"I was in a little destroyer from Houston. It got a hole blown in the front that you could drive a truck in," Wilson said.

Unscathed in the attack, Wilson got severely seasick.

"About a week before we got over there, they took me up to the hospital. They had put me on guard duty; I could much less stand up than go on guard duty," he said.

He caught up with his unit sometime after the Allied invasion of France while Americans were working to break the Siegfried Line. Most of the men in the Yankee division were from the Northeast.

"Naturally, I didn't get along with too many of them Yankees in there. I had a rough time I'll tell you -- fighting with the Germans and fussing with my comrades."

Wilson also ended up ditching his heavy BAR for a much lighter M1 carbine. It was a move he was glad for in the winter when the snow began to fall.

"The snow was waist deep. I tell you it was rough. My feet froze, but that was OK. You kept a-going. Finally, I got shrapnel in my side. The medics thought they dug all that out, and about a week later I took the German measles. That sent me back to the hospital," he said.

After recovering, Wilson went to work at what he calls a "rehabilitation center," knocking down a brick wall with a sledge hammer. One day a truck rolled through headed back to the front. He decided it was time to go and went to retrieve his records from the headquarters office. The lieutenant was out to lunch.

"There was a little old fuzzy-tailed private who had just come overseas. I don't think he was even 18. He didn't look it."

The private told Wilson he would have to wait.

They argued.

"I had that carbine and I swung the butt against the side of his head. He fell back on the floor and I got on the truck," Wilson said.

Back at the front, Wilson was offered a job as a messenger. He accepted, and spent the rest of the war running messages back and forth between headquarters and the front lines.

"I went for a couple months and I didn't get no pay. I went in to my company commander and he said, `Who are you?' He had no record of me."

Toward the end of the war, the Yankee Division moved into Czechoslovakia where they surrounded the Nazis along the Vlatava River.

"The Russians were on the other side of the Germans, and they were closing in. I still say that's why they surrendered. The Russians were fighting them on one side and we were fighting them on the other. They didn't have nowhere to go," he said.

There came the happiest moment of the war.

"The Germans came in and started stacking their guns up and throwing tents. They lined up as far as you could see," he said. "That was the best thing. I enjoyed seeing them stacking those guns up."

Wilson's records never caught up with him. When the war was over, his commander said he couldn't be sent home yet, and Wilson was assigned to work as a cook in an officer's mess hall in Vienna, Austria.

After the war, Wilson went to work for NIBCO where he retired as a master mechanic. He also spent years competing in shooting sports, archery and drag racing.

His crash helmet? A Nazi helmet painted white with the image of Spooky the tuff little ghost.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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