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Saturday, May 25th, 2013
By Margie Wuebker
Decorated veteran compiles memories in book
COLDWATER - Memorial Day is about remembering military heroes. Decorated Army veteran Ray Wenning recently completed a book about his memories of the action he saw during World War II and the Battle of the Bulge.
Appropriately titled "My Life," it represents more than two decades of work, four trips to Europe, countless letters and a multitude of telephone calls.
"I wanted this book done before I died," the 90-year man said with a smile. "I did it for my grandchildren, great-grandchildren and all those yet to come so they might see history through grandpa's eyes."
He is proud of the book as well as two special awards - the French Knight of the Legion of Honor medal and Knight of Belgium Fourragere shoulder cord - he received during an Easter Sunday ceremony.
In a proclamation accompanying the medal, French Consulate General Graham Paul wrote "More than 65 years ago you gave your youth to France and the French people." The award, created long ago by Napoleon, is the highest honor the country can bestow upon those who have achieved remarkable deeds. The shoulder cord honors extraordinary heroism in action against the German Army as Wenning and fellow members of his unit cleared out enemy resistance and destroyed supplies in September 1944.
"My unit was cited twice for the honors," he said. "It is up to the soldiers to apply and the awards are given only to those still living, so I decided not to waste any more time."
Wenning, a Mercer County farm boy, was drafted and joined the U.S. Army in March 1944. He vividly recalls joining nearly 7,500 soldiers aboard the stripped-down luxury liner New Amsterdam en route to foreign shores.
"They put cargo nets over the side and you had to climb down onto the landing vessels," he said. "That was no easy feat with 4- and 5-foot waves."
The landing at Omaha Beach just after D-Day was uneventful, however dangerous conflicts awaited for the infantry replacement on the front line with the 30th Division.
"I was involved in all but the last three days of the Battle of the Bulge," Wenning said. "I think I used up more than nine lives in the process."
One of the incidents occurred as he was accompanying The Red Ball Express (a line of U.S. supply trucks).
"Adolph Hitler's 1st SS Division caught us at midnight and dropped flares," he said. "Then came the strafing...it sounded like hail hitting the trucks and exploding bombs picked us off the ground. Everybody scattered and the trucks were gone when I returned."
Wenning met up with a medic and a rifleman, who also were separated from their units. The men took shelter in a cow barn. German soldiers sped by in confiscated trucks and enemy paratroopers marched by the following day but never approached the barn standing less than 185 feet from the road.
The trio survived by taking two bites off their ration bars each day and melting snow for water.
"Everything got quiet on the third day so we left the barn," he said. "The Germans had gone left so we headed right."
They soon encountered a young German SS trooper on the road. He, too, had become separated from his unit and tried to surrender. Wenning, who spoke German, told him to go on his way. The soldier walked sideways, Wenning said, apparently fearful the Americans intended to shoot him in the back.
The Mercer County man nearly became a target for an enemy sniper on his 22nd birthday while in the small city of Stavalot, Belgium. Everyone was cautious because Germans were camped nearby. Suddenly several shots rang out and bullets whistled past Wenning's helmet. He finally located the position - beneath a pristine GI blanket neatly stretched across the basement stairs of a burned out building. The threat was quickly eliminated.
Wenning is still haunted by the sounds of the Malmedy Massacre. A Nazi tank detachment killed 86 American prisoners amid a hail of bullets he heard in the distance. He later led a convoy of trucks carrying suspected prisoners to a trial in Stuttgart.
Wenning, whose side still shows evidence of shrapnel from exploding bombs and shells, earned his Purple Heart in the waning days of the war for serious frostbite to his hands and feet acquired during cold nights in foxholes.
"On the front lines all of your senses work better than ever," he said. "I knew the sound of each tank, plane, gun or anything for that matter. I knew whose artillery made what kind of sound. It wasn't a talent; it was survival."
Before leaving the military, he served as first sergeant at a Prisoner of War camp in France.
He returned home and married the former Mary Reier in 1947. The couple, who formerly farmed and operated Ray's Refrigeration and Ray's Dairyland in Coldwater, are the parents of 16 children - nine boys and seven girls.
"Memorial Day is an important time for us," he said. "Military service runs in the family beginning with my dad and continuing with five of my children, three in-laws and now a grandson."
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