A chance to heal
World War II?vet takes journey back to Germany
HAGERSTOWN, Md. — For 50 years after World War II, Wilbur Jackson “Jack” Myers said he couldn’t talk about his experiences in Europe.
He was dealing with post-traumatic stress — a term that originated decades after the war.
The 98-year-old Hagerstown resident recently returned from a trip to Germany with five other veterans through the Best Defense Foundation.
The California-based nonprofit, covering the costs, takes veterans back to where they fought and served to honor and recognize them, and to provide them an opportunity for “ultimate closure,” founder and Executive Director Donnie Edwards said.
“What we owe these men is to give them an opportunity to go back with their brothers, people that speak the language, that were in the foxhole,” Edwards said.
For that reason, family members don’t typically accompany the veterans, he said.
Myers has been on several of the foundation’s trips, including a few to Germany.
The trip this July included visits to memorials, war-related museums, restored buildings that had been damaged during the war, and former concentration camps.
Myers said the trips have helped with “self-healing” and “dealing with losing my buddies in the war.”
HEADING OFF TO WAR
The Williamsport native was 20 when he was drafted into the Army in January 1944.
Myers said he left Hagerstown on a railroad car with around 45 other “fellas” from Washington County. They went to Baltimore, where they were examined, given uniforms and split up to go to different destinations. Myers said he and another man went to Camp Hood in Texas for basic training.
After basic, Myers joined the 692nd Tank Destroyer Battalion in Georgia.
Myers recalled traveling among a large convoy that departed New York to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
“As far as I could see to the horizon, there were ships,” he said.
“We were protected with destroyers. Every now and then they would drop depth charges to scare submarines away.”
His unit arrived at Cherbourg, France, in September. The ship couldn’t dock because of a sunken vessel, so they went over the side to a smaller vessel to get to shore, he said.
The battalion supported the 104th Infantry Division in Holland and in Aachen, Germany, before joining Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s forces at the Battle of the Bulge.
The battalion took defensive positions as the Germans attacked at the Ardennes Forest during the famed battle, according to the unit’s history.
As an antitank gunner, Myers operated a 3-inch gun towed by a half-track, he said. The gun would be dug into position and the half-track driven back and camouflaged. The gun was used to take out tanks and machine-gun nests.
Later he worked in an M36 tank destroyer, which featured an open turret atop. His commander was often in the turret selecting targets, while Myers was in the destroyer below looking out to sight targets for the 90-mm gun.
Myers recalled approaching the Ruhr River and being unable to cross it because the bridges had been bombed.
“We set up our guns and artillery to protect the engineers” while they built a pontoon bridge, he said.
It was after they crossed the pontoon bridge that Myers said he saw some of their fiercest fighting.
Following a battle, preparing for a counterattack, Myers said he couldn’t get his gun barrel to move because of tree limbs.
So his driver, Albert “Al” Hachske “jumped out to cut limbs down and we got a tremendous barrage of mortar.”
Hachske was struck by shrapnel, he said.
“My tank commander and I jumped out and tried to save him and we couldn’t,” he said.
Myers said he told that story in a video that was shared online a few years ago, where Hachske’s great-great nephew saw it.
The two have connected since and had a “wonderful meeting.”
“How many veterans would be able to connect with someone like that after the war? It felt very special. It helped me out. It helped him out, too,” Myers said.
Myers said trips like the one to Germany “mean everything.
“To see how the country’s come back and how much they appreciate freedom and how much they haven’t forgotten how important freedom is,” he said of Germany.
Among the veterans on the trip were Guy Stern and Paul Fairbrook, who were members of the Ritchie Boys.
The Ritchie Boys were a group of men trained in intelligence matters at Camp Ritchie in Cascade, in northeastern Washington County.
Myers said he found it “heartwarming” to travel with them. He said he’d heard of the Ritchie Boys before, but he didn’t really know what they did until listening to Stern’s and Fairbrook’s stories.
The Best Defense Foundation provides the veterans with cards featuring their photos and information about them and their units.
Often at stops along the trip, folks come up to the veterans to meet and thank them, Myers said. The veterans hand out the cards and, occasionally, people ask for their autographs, he said.
The trips to Europe bring back great memories as well as sad ones, such as buddies who died in the war.
“It’s kind of sad to think about how they gave their life for freedom,” he said. “That’s what’s important about these trips … remembering those who didn’t make it.”
There are many things about the war that Myers said aren’t good to remember.
“But the victory that we won is good to remember because we needed to do it, we had to do it, and we did it. Those men died for a good cause,” he said.
‘A GREAT LIFE’
Myers said he feels “pretty blessed” to be alive and healthy enough to make the return trips and witness the progress in war-torn areas.
“I still had a great life. Things happen to everyone. You have to do what you have to do. I had a good life and good family,” he said.
Myers married Kate Kendle before the war, and they were together for 69 years before she died.
When he returned home, he upholstered and refurbished furniture for The Custom Shop he owned and operated in downtown Williamsport for about three years. The business got so big he moved it north of Hagerstown and renamed it Park and Shop Furniture. He owned that one for about three years before selling it to Highway Furniture and going to work at their Leitersburg Pike store. Then he worked at Martin’s Furniture before retiring in 2000.
He now lives with his wife, Mary Jo Kemper, in Hagerstown.
Myers is the father of four sons. He is a grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather.
Myers is planning to attend another foundation trip to Holland next month. Whether it will happen is still up in the air because of the COVID-19 pandemic.