A Hood River combat veteran who survived one of the bloodiest wars in United States history believes that same scenario will never be replayed in future conflicts.
Duane Simonds, a decorated World War II soldier, expects technology to help modern troops avoid the high casualty rates seen on battlefields of Europe.
“I believe that if we go into this war with Iraq we’ll use technology that will allow us to sweep them away just like a broom,” said Simonds.
At the age of 71, Simonds is content to watch the current military operations unfold from the comfort of his Tucker Road home. But serious health problems of late have led him to record his involvement in more than one year of savage fighting that followed the storming of the Anzio beachhead by the 45th Infantry Division, also known as the “Thunderbirds.” Surrounded by memorabilia, Simonds is working on a legacy for his beloved grandchildren, a taped account of his grueling trek to Rome against fierce resistance — where the troops stopped to “wallow in sin” for a few days — before heading into France on their way to Germany. They stopped Naziism on its own home grounds when they freed prisoners held at the Dachau death camp and garrisoned in Munich.
“I was in law school when Hitler interrupted me,” recounts the Nebraska native who settled into the Hood River Valley in 1939 and enlisted in the Army in 1943.
Historians credit the desperate gamble to land a large amphibious force behind enemy lines in January of 1944 with breaking the military backbone of German leader Adolf Hitler and his Italian counterpart, Benito Mussolini. The price of the Thunderbird’s campaign was high, with 511 days of combat and casualty rates that topped 27,000 — second highest in the war for an American division.
But Simonds said there was no glory in the battle, with life reduced down to a matter of survival — often from the frigid winter weather as much as from heavy enemy fire.
“I saw people surrender to the Germans just because they would rather be shot or taken prisoner than freeze to death,” Simonds said.
And some of his closest friends were not so fortunate, and failed to survive the violence. He remembers the day that one of his last two comrades was walking across a field with him in Nuremberg and was mowed down by a sniper bullet just hours after getting promoted to the rank of Sergeant.
“I had seven friends, some of them with a wife and children, and they are still over there,” said Simonds. “Artillery was coming in night and day but I was an excellent rifleman and very fast — I guess that’s what saved me.”
But even battlefield horrors couldn’t lessen Simonds’ shock at the hollow-eyed, almost skeletal physical condition of the Dachau inmates.
“I had been immersed in death and ruin for months and I was still absolutely appalled, these people were nothing but bones and skin,” he said.
Although the Thunderbirds were attacked by civilians as they broke out of Nuremberg, Simonds said the war essentially ended for the soldiers at Dachau and from that point on the villagers welcomed them with cheers and offered them shares of their meager food supplies. He still treasures the heart on a chain that was given to him by one woman in repayment for her liberation.
“They made me feel like a hero, they had so little but they always tried to give us something,” he said.
He came home in November of 1945 to raise three sons and pursue a career as a professional welder. But it isn’t his war chest of combat medals that he draws the most pride from, it is the “Best Grandpa in the world” sign that hangs on his living room wall.
“I’m not sure war changes your life, it leaves you with reminiscences that aren’t exactly pleasant but you kind of learn to dismiss them,” Simonds said.