Rocklin veteran shares personal World War II storyBy: Brody Fernandez
While living at the Rocklin Atria assisted-living community in Rocklin is a far cry from Germany, former Staff Sgt. Les Wheeler can still vividly picture his World War II experiences.
Wheeler, 95, shared his experiences Monday with Gold Country Media.
The longtime Rocklin resident was born on Feb. 13, 1922 in Denver. Shortly after graduating from high school in 1939, Wheeler worked for Southern Pacific Railroad as a telegrapher for railroad stations from Salt Lake City to Reno.
When the war came along, Wheeler had one goal, which was to get out of the telegraph office so he could help.
Wheeler was soon an infantryman at Camp Roberts in Monterey.
“After basic training, it was off to Europe where my company (103rd Infantry Division of the U.S. 7th Army) arrived one month after the invasion of Normandy or D-Day,” Wheeler said. “We then hiked right across the battlefield at Omaha Beach. It was full of wreckage, a lot of destroyed tanks and artillery and shell holes but we didn't stop.”
The company took a cross-country trek into the heart of Germany.
“We then hiked all the way across France to Alsace Lorraine (the northeastern bordering region between France and Germany),” Wheeler said. “We got to a little town called Epfig and that’s where I joined up with the infantry. It was September at that point, 1944, and winter was just beginning.”
The following spring, Wheeler and his company finally broke through German defenses and into German “homeland” territory.
And that's where Wheeler’s life-changing story begins.
“One frosty morning, our objective was to enter a small village of Oberschlettenbach and search every house, barn, chicken coop and neutralize any enemy units that might still be hiding. As we walked down the main street in single file, carefully placed 10-foot intervals,” Wheeler said, “we saw white sheets, tablecloths and other ‘surrender’ flags appearing. Suddenly from a house near the street, a door opened. A small gray-haired woman called out, ‘Bitte, Americaner soldat, kanst du hier bekommen ein minuten’ (translated: Please, American soldier, you can come over here for a minute).”
Wheeler didn’t know what to expect so he cautiously approached as she was holding something small and red, that might have been some kind of bomb.
“I was the squad leader so I went over to the woman and in German asked her what she was holding. I was amazed as she unraveled and shook out this handmade American Flag right before my eyes,” Wheeler said. “What she had done is ripped a large piece of cloth from a bright red German swastika flag, and on the other side, she had hand-sewed seven white stripes, and in a blue corner, had sewed 48 small white stars.”
Wheeler was never expecting such a symbolic and brave gesture.
“I realized that she had sewed these in the dead of night because, if discovered by the Nazis, she would have been dragged out in the street and shot. All I could say to this woman when she showed me this flag was ‘danke schon’ (translation: thank you very much),” Wheeler said. “She had tears on her cheeks, and suddenly, so did I. This was the only American flag I ever saw in Germany and this woman wanted me to have it. She gave it to me. So how much value does this little flag hold? For me, it’s priceless.”