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Remembering World War II

Berlin's Greatest Generation Vets

George Ramsey, his bronze star, and his purple heart. (Photo by Erik Eisele) (click for larger version)
May 20, 2009
Berlin and the surrounding area sent nearly 3,000 men and 52 women to serve in the armed forces during the Second World War. Seventy-three died while serving. In recognition of Memorial Day, the Reporter is bringing you stories from two of those men. Also in honor of Memorial Day, the Reporter is reprinting several articles from 65 years ago. They are from the May 18, 1944, Berlin Reporter, when the country was in the midst of the war. Special thanks to the Berlin & Cos County Historical Society for their help in the research for this project.

Italy, 1943 to 1945

Adeline Ramsey put it best. "He was lucky to come back," she said, "a lot of them didn't come back."

George Ramsey didn't choose to become a soldier; he was drafted. He reported for service on April 6, 1943. Sixty-six Memorial Days later he retold his story.

"There's a lot of things I forget today," he said, "but there's a lot of things I don't forget."

Like Jacksonville, Fla. Mr. Ramsey reported to Jacksonville for basic training, the furthest he'd ever been from Berlin. Then he was sent to Little Rock, Ark., for more training, but 10 days after arriving in Little Rock he was told he would be assigned to foreign duty. He was shipped out several days later.

"It was 21 days before we saw land," he said.

The Rock of Gibraltar marked his entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. The first stop was North Africa, where the ships crowded the harbor, too numerous to dock. Rather than float in the harbor, the captain sailed back out to sea.

The Germans bombed the harbor that night.

"It was just like the forth of July," he said, watching the explosions in the harbor from eight miles out.

The next day they were able to dock and unload. It was Mr. Ramsey's first steps on foreign soil, and it was his 19th birthday.

"I was there two, three days and I got malaria," he said. He was flown to a hospital in Naples, Italy, where he shared space with mostly British soldiers.

After he recovered Mr. Ramsey joined the 34th Division, 5th Army, or "the Red Bull," as they were known. And he went around Italy, from hill to hill.

The Americans would capture a hill and try to hold it. The Germans would shell and attack. The Italians would help the Americans, Mr. Ramsey said, and risk the wrath of the Germans.

"Mule skinners" were Italians who would bring food and water to the Americans. Every night the company would wait for water, and sometimes they would have to meet the mule skinners to escort them. One night, Mr. Ramsey said, the mule skinner didn't show up. The captain asked for volunteers to go find him. Mr. Ramsey volunteered, along with three others. They stole down the hill in the gathering darkness, and at the base of the hill they found the mule standing silently. Next to him, lying on the ground, was the mule skinner. He'd been hit by a mortar and was dying.

"He asked me: Piazan, acqua?" Mr. Ramsey said. "I give him some water, and he died in my arms."

Mr. Ramsey and the other volunteers turned to the mule. It stood, silent. The mortar had killed it too, standing. Mr. Ramsey grabbed a jug of water from the donkey's back and they hurried up hill.

They got back to the top of the hill and hurried to the protection of their camp. The captain saw them returning and asked what happened. Mr. Ramsey opened his mouth to speak but instead heard the crack of a rifle. The water jug he was holding sprung a leak, and the group dove for cover. The sniper had missed his mark by a foot.

During the war Mr. Ramsey was Communications Sgt. Ramsey.

"I laid telephone wire," he said.

The Germans would pick up radio communications so the Americans ran cable between posts to talk.

"I had to repair the lines at night because during the day the Germans would see us," he said.

Sometimes, it was only at night they would see the Germans. The 5th Army stormed the beach at Anzio, Italy, deep in enemy territory. Mr. Ramsey was part of the second landing.

"We jumped out in four feet of water to get to the beach," he said. "We didn't meet any Germans until nighttime."

Anzio is regarded as one of the bloodiest and most hard fought battles during the war. Mr. Ramsey was stoic; he said he remembers it was heavy fighting and nothing more.

Italy continued to pass under Mr. Ramsey's boots. In Bologna he helped capture two German officers. In Milan, he saw the Italian fascist leader Mussolini's body hanging in front of a gas station, strung up by his feet. And in Rome he saw Charlie Bijeau.

"He was my best friend in Berlin," he said. After the Allies took Rome, Mr. Ramsey wanted to visit the Vatican. He got a few days furlough and took a bus to the Holy City. He was walking around taking pictures when a truck full of American soldiers pulled up. Charlie Bijeau was on the truck.

"He yelled 'Joe, Joe, Joe,'" Mr. Ramsey said, and he hopped out of the truck. Mr. Ramsey handed his camera off and had them snap a picture of him and Charlie. Charlie then hopped back into the truck, and it sped away.

"Two weeks after that he landed in southern France," Mr. Ramsey said, "and two days after that he was killed." Mr. Ramsey still has the picture of him and Charlie Bijeau in Rome.

Home again

Mr. Ramsey was one of the first soldiers to come home when the war ended. After 33 months in the army, and 28 months of front-line duty, he had earned his trip home.

He keeps his discharge papers in a frame and his letter of commendation in a folder with his photo album. He said he can think of several times he was almost killed, including once by his own army. And he remembers other things about the war: how beautiful Nice, France was, and seeing Mount Vesuvius erupt from the window of an airplane as he flew to a hospital in Naples. He earned a bronze star and a purple heart, which he keeps in their cases along with his dog tags.

Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey went back to Italy in 1994. They visited the battlefields and military cemeteries. At a ceremony commemorating the battle of Anzio, organizers asked Mr. Ramsey to carry the wreath to the monument. That was 15 years ago.

"We're getting so old," Mr. Ramsey said. "There's less of us soldiers left."

Berlin is lucky to still have a few.

Defending the American Coast

By Erik Eisele

BERLIN — By the time George Roy was 22, it seemed clear he had two choices: enlist or be drafted.

He chose to enlist.

"I knew sooner or later I'd be drafted," he said, so he traveled from Berlin to Portland with two friends, Lionel Parent and Roland Pinette, and enlisted.

It was 1942, and Mr. Roy joined the Navy. The war was raging on both fronts, and the government decided Mr. Roy should join the effort to protect the homefront. He became an aviation machinist's mate, or a "plane captain," based out of the Banana River Naval Air Base in Florida (now known as Patrick Air Force Base). He flew on PBMs, twin-engine propellered airplanes used to patrol the coast looking for submarines. An aviation machinist's mate looks after the airplane, repairing engines and ensuring the plane is ready to fly.

The PBMs flew up and down the coast looking for German subs. Mr. Roy said they had depth charges aboard in case they ever spotted anything on the radar. They would fly south to Guantanamo Bay and north to Nova Scotia, searching everywhere for German subs.

"I remember one time looking out the window and seeing Portland, Maine," he said.

Up and down and up and down the coast, day after day, week after week, patrolling, watching the radar.

He never saw a submarine, and they never dropped any depth charges, but it wasn't without excitement.

"We had trouble with our engine one time," he said. The engine failed, and the plane was forced to turn around and land at Guantanamo. It took several days to get it back in the air.

The planes would be at the Banana River Naval Air Base for only a day or two between patrols, then they would be gone for two or three days at a time. Every day, planes went north and south to patrol. Mr. Roy was almost always flying. Still, he considered Banana River home.

To make it more like home, he decided to get married. He knew the woman who would be his wife; she was from Berlin. But at that time she was working in Washington, D.C. He sent her a letter, asking her to come to Rock Ledge, Fla., and in 1943 they were married by a Navy chaplain. She moved into a house near the base.

But soon the war ended in the European theater, and Mr. Roy was sent to the West Coast to fly patrols.

"That's when my daughter was born," he said. "I was gone."

The war ended shortly after, and Mr. Roy returned to Berlin. It was a much different city at that time.

"No shortage of jobs in those days," he said. His job at the mill was waiting for him, and he now had a family. He settled back into life in Berlin.

And his initial gamble had proven correct—Mr. Roy's older brother Andrew was drafted a year after George enlisted.

Mr. Roy earned the rank of Pfc. while in the service. He is 89 years old, and he still lives in Berlin.

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