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Veteran spared from front lines

Staff writer

An army sergeant was facing the troops gathered before him.

“Does anybody here know how to type?” he asked. “I need someone who can type.”

It was 1941, and at that time, few men could type.

Wes Fenske, then 23, of Lincolnville raised his hand and got a job as a payroll clerk. He remained a clerk throughout his time in the Army until his discharge Oct. 7, 1945.

“I raised my hand because I had had enough of the rattlesnakes and copperheads in the swamps,” the 94-year-old veteran said Friday in an interview.

The 1937 graduate of Lincolnville High School enlisted in the U.S. Army in February 1941, expecting to serve for one year. The farm boy joined 22 others from Marion County who traveled to Little Rock, Ark., for basic training. His unit then moved to Louisiana for further training.

They set up pup tents in a swampy area. The first day, heavy rain caused many of the tents to be flooded, and during the night, the snakes came out. Fenske said they weren’t like snakes in this area. Many were eight feet long and four inches in diameter.

The next morning, the soldiers conducted a snake hunt and killed a bunch. The Army moved the men to higher ground later that day.

After two months, Fenske’s unit went back to Little Rock, where he did extra duty as a typist.

A week after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Fenske’s unit of 300 men was sent to Long Beach, Calif. The move was a secret. Every train car had a guard, and a food car provided meals. No one was allowed to get off.

For five days, the special troop train zigzagged through the countryside on its way west. One day, it passed through Herington. Fenske was just 15 miles from home but his parents were unaware.

It was different for a fellow soldier from Ramona. He had somehow learned that the train would pass through Herington and had informed his parents. They met with him while the train took on water and other supplies.

After arriving at Long Beach, the unit set up a tent camp in the city park. While there, Fenske and Paul Pritz, a medic from Lincolnville, had a chance encounter with a music teacher who had taught them at Lincolnville High School. He was teaching in a nearby school.

After a few weeks in California, Fenske was called to the camp headquarters in a nearby office building to resume work as an Army clerk. He spent about 1½ years there and was promoted to the position of head sergeant. He supervised 20 clerks.

His girlfriend, Pauline Meyer of Lost Springs, traveled to California to marry Fenske in the summer of 1943. They lived together in California until he went overseas, when she returned to Kansas.

His unit was shipped to England in May 1944, one month after the D-Day invasion of Europe. The troops traveled across the English Channel in small boats, climbed the cliffs of France, and went into action. At least 100 soldiers in the unit were killed the first day. Over the 10-month period, there were at least 800 deaths and 8,000 injuries in Fenske’s unit.

Fenske continued to function as a records clerk, so he spent his days at Army headquarters five or 10 miles behind the front lines as they moved across Europe toward Germany.

“I never fired a shot,” he said. “My gun had only one bullet.”

After the war in Europe ended in August 1945, Fenske was offered a promotion to first sergeant if he would re-enlist.

“No, I’m going home,” he said. He didn’t want to go to the South Pacific, where the enlisted troops were being transferred.

As it turned out, he had to wait two months for transportation back to the States. Meanwhile, the Japanese surrendered, his fellow soldiers never went to the South Pacific, and they got home before he did.

Fenske received a Bronze Star for his service as a technical sergeant and was discharged Oct. 7, 1945, at Leavenworth. He was planning to get a job in Wichita, but his wife had inherited the family farm while he was in Germany, and they took it over.

He operated a Grade A dairy for 20 years. He retired from farming about 15 years ago.

The couple has been married almost 69 years. Wes is 94, and Pauline is 91. They raised five children and continue to live in their home on the farm. The refrigerator is covered with photos of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Fenske is a member of Gilbert-Poppe American Legion Post 347. He has been involved in Memorial Day activities since the American Legion was established in 1947. He has been a member of the rifle salute squad for many years and will serve in that capacity again Monday at Lincolnville. He will give the commands. His wife and daughters have provided special music for years, and they will be on hand this year to lead group singing.

Fenske may not have earned many combat medals, but the veteran is proud of his service and is proud of the work that he did for the Army.

“Raising my hand, that did it,” he said.

Last modified May 24, 2012

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