Fred Strass was a rifleman in an infantry company that fought in Europe during World War II. He served as a sergeant in K-Company, 406th Regiment of the 102nd Infantry Division.
Known as “The Ozark Division,” because it was activated in 1921 as an Army Reserve unit from the St. Louis, Mo. area, thus the Ozark designation.
“We arrived in Cherbourg, France in late September 1944 and took the ‘Red Ball Express’ to the German-Netherlands border,” Strass recalled. “We were given a sector of the front to defend and began to prepare for an attack on the Roer River in late November.”
When “The Battle of the Bulge” developed in mid-December 1944 the 102nd was scheduled to be thrown into that fight, but for some reason never made it.
What Strass remembers most about his six months on the front line during the closing months of World War II is the Gardelegen Massacre. He liberated a German camera from some place along the way and was taking pictures of what he found as they fought and moved further into Germany when his unit reached Gardelegen.
“The Germans had encircled this wooden barn with machine guns and forced a bunch of civilians into it. Then they set it on fire and burned hundreds of people to death,” he recalled six decades later. “I remember taking a picture of this man who had tried to dig himself out of the blaze from under the burning barn. Only his head was sticking out from beneath the floorboards. The Germans shot him in the forehead as he tried to escape. He died on the spot.”
The 102nd Division stumbled upon the barn and hundreds of dead civilians just by chance. The division had crossed the Rhine River and was moving further east in early April 1945, a month before the German’s surrendered.
The SS commander of the nearby Dora-Mittelbau Concentration Camp was trying to move thousands of prisoners from the camp out of the path of the advancing Allied forces. Some 4,000 of these detainees were held at the town of Gardelegen.
Too ill and weak to march with other prisoners, 1,016 were taken to a large barn on a nearby estate and barricaded inside. Gasoline-soaked straw was used to ignite the barn.
The 102nd overran the area before the Germans could dispose of the charred bodies. A few days later news of the German atrocities appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post.
On April 21, 1945 Maj. Gen. Frank Keating, commander of the 102nd, ordered several hundred German men from Gardelegen to provide the murdered prisoners with a proper burial. They placed the remains of 430 burned bodies from the barn in individual graves and placed crosses on each grave. A ceremony to honor the dead prisoners was conducted by the division’s commander.
The 102nd put a monument at the site of the burial noting: “The people of Gardelegen are charged with the responsibility that these graves are forever kept as green as the memory of these unfortunates will be kept in the hearts of freedom-loving men everywhere.”
At one point during the division’s advance into Germany Strass was sent to the top of a church’s steeple to reconnoiter .
“As I entered the church courtyard a horse was lying on the cobblestones. He had been hit by shrapnel and was dying. He just looked up at me with those sad eyes as though to say, ‘Help me!’
“I shot the horse in the head and put him out of his misery.
“Then I went up in the steeple and spied on the Germans. I could see them pulling back. They would stop a while, get in position and fire a few rounds. Then they’d pull back some more,” he said.
Strass gave this information to his superiors.
Ten days later the 102nd reached the Elbe River. They thought they would cross the river and accompany the Russians into Berlin. It never happened because Allied commanders decided to let the Russians take the capital city on their own because of the casualties expected to be sustained in the assault.
“I was standing guard at a bridge across the Elbe,” Strass said. “The Germans would come across the bridge and drop their arms in a pile next to me.
“We had a tractor trailer there. Stacks of German guns were loaded into the tractor trailer. Before it pulled out I jumped up on the truck and grabbed whatever I could. I got a double barrel shotgun and a Luger pistol I sent home.”
He lost the Luger and sold the shotgun to a friend years later
Strass’ final adventure during the Second World War came after the Germans surrendered and he and the 102nd were part of the occupation forces. He rode as a guard on a coal train into Czechoslovakia to locate some of his mother’s relatives.
“When we arrived in Czechoslovakia I got off the train and hitchhiked to my family’s village. I got a ride with a couple of German guys in a truck. I gave them cigarettes,” he said. “When I reached the town I went to the American army headquarters and told them what I was doing there.
“I located my mother’s stepmother, who was an old lady, and my mother’s sister, my aunt, and a cousin before I headed back to my unit. “When I reached the 102nd it was moving to Le Havre on its way home,” he said.
“At Le Havre there was a big archway and the inscription on the arch read: ‘Through these portals pass the best damn soldiers in the world.'”
They took a liberty ship back to the United States.
“When we reached New York Harbor everybody was out on deck to see the Statue of Liberty. It was February and the deck was all iced over,” he said.
Strass ended up at Fort Dix where he was discharged in February 1946.
“I hitchhiked home from Dix to Hacketstown, N.J. carrying a duffel bag on my back,” he said. “This guy picked me up and took me right into town.”
After the war he worked as a carpenter and millwright setting up machines in shops. In 1984 he suffered a heart attack at 62 and retired. He and his wife, Audrey, moved to Englewood a short time later. She passed away several years ago.
Name: Frederick L. Strass
D.O.B: 2 Nov. 1921
Hometown: Washington, NJ
Current: Englewood, FL
Entered Service: 1942
Unit: 406th Infantry Regiment, 102nd Division
Commendations: American Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal
Battles/Campaigns: Central Europe and Rhineland
This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, May 30, 2011 and is republished with permission.
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