God led me to document the life stories of our elderly. I have 10 stories to share with you, this is the first. Enjoy
The air around Chester “Chet” Ellis is formidable. He tells his story like he had lived it yesterday.
“I’ve had a lot of time to reminisce since coming to the nursing home. I can see my time in the service just as plain as I can see you. It’s embedded in my brain so clear. It’s what comes back to me laying there in my bed,” he says. Drafted into the service at 19, along with two of his brothers and his sister, Chet was sent to Fort Lewis in Washington and “trained to kill people”. It was a bad time for him. The only life Chet had known was here in Alexandria on the farm, a simple, quiet life. He was raised to live simply and work hard. He says “It was a different world from what I knew. It was hard to be there and no fun at all,” he says.
After training, Chet and his company (Company I, 324th Infantry) was shipped from Boston to France. On Chet’s birthday, September 8, 1944, in the middle of the Atlantic, they were attacked by German subs. He recalls how scared he was hearing the sounds of bombs all around the ship from below deck. He had never been on a ship or in battle.
They survived and arrived in France unharmed, but soon after his arrival they were sent to the front lines. After months of battle and overtaking several small towns along the way, Chet’s regiment infiltrated the borders of Germany to resupply the troops who had been there from months. The allies were in rough shape. The Germans were going all out fighting like they never had before, and the allied troops had to withdraw. “My sergeant ordered three men to stay behind. I was one of them. They left us with a truckload of artillery and four machine guns. We were told that we had until midnight to make it over the bridge before it was destroyed, or we would be left behind. We started shooting shells at 10 p.m., one right after another. We never let up. I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of shells we went through,” he recalls. Chet and his men made it out, crossing the bridge just minutes before it blew. That night they slept in the snow banks under a railroad bridge and caught up with their company the next day.
One of the most searing memories he has is of liberating a concentration camp full of prisoners of war. He saw firsthand how the prisoners had lived in captivity. The 324th regiment liberated nearly 2200 prisoners of war on that mission. Chet recalls that day with a look of shock still in his eyes. “Unbelievable. They were thinner than hell, like death warmed over. We fought all the harder after that,” he says solemnly. He knows that God was with them in the war, and he knows God brought him home.
The troops went long periods without a change of clothing or a shower, sleeping in snowbanks, with very little food. Chet fought for months, sick with yellow jaundice. He was released from the hospital and rejoined his company the day after 19th German Army surrendered in Austria.
Chet met his wife, Anna, after the war, in a bowling alley in Alexandria. “Anna Mae Wehsollek. Full blooded German!” he exclaimed. “Her parents came over in 1923. She passed away in April 2013. We had seven children together. They visit all the time.”
He eventually retired from General Motors. But at one point, he had to choose between the job and family. “My wife wanted to take a vacation, but I didn’t think we could afford it, with a baby and one on the way. But she convinced me to move to Oregon, where her uncle got me a job. We lived out there about a year and a half.”
When asked what lesson he wanted to pass on to younger generations, it was this: “Love is the most important thing in life. Love your fellow man. The best thing in life is to love your partner. You have to tell them you love them and you have to show them. If you do that, you can survive anything. Show that little kid, that little rascal, that you love him everyday, that kid will show you that he loves you.”