Veterans share war memories
By Dan Crawford
Gory details of combat or strategies of major battles were absent in a before-dinner talk in Loma Rica Saturday by a veteran of two wars.
Instead, Jack Mistler, 80, an Army infantryman who served in both World War II and the Korean War, offered a more personal view of a young man's involvement in world-changing events. Mistler, the father of Yuba County Supervisor John Mistler, barely mentioned his participation in the pivotal Battle of the Bulge, where the 75th Infantry "diaper division" found itself only a week after landing in Europe. At 23, he considered himself much older than his 18- and 19-year-olds counterparts responsible for the group's nickname. Mistler was the speaker at the fifth annual Veterans Day program and dinner, hosted by the Loma Rica Lioness Club. Proceeds will go a veterans organization the Lioness leadership picks, said Ronna Chesney, club secretary.
One of the most vivid pieces of his 30-minute of reflection told of the liberation of 50,000 Russian prisoners of war from a Nazi camp. The prisoners, none weighing more than 70 pounds, were dying at a rate of 100 per day.
Mistler's unit occupied Plettenburg, a German foothill town filled with 20,000 women and children in the war's waning days and ensuing Allied occupation.
With battles all but over, he said the bigger problem became how to keep the U.S. soldiers and young German women apart.
"You couldn't socialize with any of the local people," he said. "That was forbidden. I could see real quick that we were going to have problems." A plan developed with a local cafe owner helped defuse the situation.
Mistler said the man, whom he knew only as "Herr Schulte," showed the occupation army where to obtain been and wine.
The cafe became a cafeteria-style mess hall, complete with Italian musicians.
Three Italian prisoners of war, who happened to play instruments, were assigned to kitchen duty and "band patrol." Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers were ordered to act appropriately in the cafe. They were warned specifically not to pinch any of the cafe owner's three daughters who served as waitresses.
In 1997, Mistler's return to Plettenburg, included a reunion with the cafe owner's daughters.
He asked if the U.S. soldiers had observed the rule.
"You'll keep wondering," he said they answered.
After a six-day stay in a town hotel, he said the Germans refused to take any money for lodging, food or even long-distance telephone calls. "You don't have a bill," the innkeeper told him. "The people you befriended in 1945 paid your bill. You can stay as long as you want." His niece made long-distance calls, he said, which prompted another attempt to at least reimburse the proprietors for the expense.
The innkeeper's mother claimed she did not know how to operate the computer to obtain the phone charges and insisted her then-napping son would not take money anyway.
Mistler said the former POW camp has been converted to a military base, but a section that chronicles the treatment of prisoners has been retained. Modern-day German soldiers must view the prison camp history section as part of their first day of duty at the base. "It's getting more and more emotional to talk about these things for me," said Mistler after the talk. The movie "Saving Private Ryan" brought back such vivid images from his own battle experiences that the deaths portrayed on the screen turned into those of his fellow soldiers.