Post-war battles

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 12, 2003

Theresa M. Deane's "labor of love" is telling the war stories of her uncle, Ralph B. Schaps.

The book, "500 Days of Front Line Combat" also helps put the universal demons all combat veterans know to rest.

As summer marches on in all its glory, the ubiquitous parade down Main Street for a community celebration carries secrets.

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They saw things and did things they can't forget after a half-century.

The veterans carrying flags and firing 21 gun salutes are also growing older. Their modern-day counterparts, fighting in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq are, most likely, the grandsons and granddaughters of a steadily waning numbers of veterans marching in parades.

Time and age are catching up with them.

Thus, the stories of the World War II generation will cease when the storytellers -- combat veterans -- fade away.

Veterans like Ralph B. Schaps.

Beginning a new journey

This veteran joined Minnesota Army National Guard in Austin and served with the 34th Infantry Division -- the Red Bull Division -- of 135th Infantry Regiment made up of soldiers from Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota. He was assigned to Company "H," a heavy weapons unit.

Schaps' division was the first to ship overseas. It fought in North Africa and then throughout Italy, following the retreating German forces, according to the author.

The book is rich in historical detail.

"Ironically, the German 34th Division surrendered to the American 34th Division at Milan, Italy, on May 1, 1945," she said. "My uncle was with the division except for the two times he was wounded and hospitalized and a brief one-month furlough back home in the U.S."

When he returned home, the veteran would frequently sit down alone and painstakingly write in long-hand or meticulously type an account of his wartime experience. Unfortunately he died of cancer in April 1997 before seeing the memoir published.

"We have left this memoir as Ralph wrote it," his niece said.

The veteran struggled with vivid images he encountered, during combat.

Meeting General George S. Patton would be a thrill to remember forever.

Casualties for the Anzio Beachhead, January to June 1944 were 59,000 soldiers, including 20,000 killed in combat. Schaps was there.

Someone to confide in

Joseph E. Schaps earned his brother's confidence after the World War II veteran returned to Minnesota.

"Ralph had a hard time readjusting after the intense experience of combat," Joseph recalled. "He took to drinking and carousing and couldn't seem to settle down."

The veteran went to Denver where he began watch repair with Joseph.

"It was during this time that Ralph told me about his experiences during the war," Joseph said. "As far as I am aware, I am the only person he told the whole story to and I was happy to listen as talking seemed to help him deal with many of his demons.

"All his life he suffered from nightmares as a result of his front line combat experiences."

Putting memories onto paper

"I am quite sure that everyone, at one time or another, has thought about writing their life story and has also wondered about their ancestors," begins the Ralph B. Schaps story. "So with that thought in mind, I write these words for my progeny and for their progeny."

When he moved to Austin as an 18 year old, Schaps went to work for his uncle Eddie in a garage, earning room and board. He also held a part-time job in a local variety store to earn spending money.

After originally joining the National Guard in St. Paul, he was transferred to the unit based in Austin, where he had moved, in 1939. The National Guard Armory was also a popular "social center." That's where dances, roller skating and bazaars were held in the late 1930s.

The young man also went to dances at the Terp Ballroom and became interested in the early days of stock car racing. Then called "jalopies," the cars raced on Sunday afternoons.

Life was good, but that was to change.

"In 1940, the war in Europe was going full blast," Schaps wrote. "The Germans were in control of all of Europe and close to defeating the Russians."

Schaps and Company "H" were activated Feb. 10, 1941, for one year of training and service. That one year last four years; most of it combat, during World War II.

"We reported to the Armory in Austin, were sworn in, had our physicals, were inoculated and prepared to ship out," he wrote.

The night before the day they left the Armory, Schaps recalls an emotional scene in Austin.

"The evening was a flurry of activity," he wrote, "as the wives, girlfriends and parents of the troops descended on the Armory. There was much mooning and spooning and sometimes tears."

Next the soldiers were sent to Camp Claibrone, La., for outfitting and training. Then came a long train ride to Fort Dix, N.J. On April 30, 1942, the soldiers sailed across the Atlantic Ocean for Europe and World War II.

Meshing memories and history

The author admits her uncle's memoir is only his personal best recollections of events and people, flawed by the soldier's own human limitations of memory. She also referenced two other books about the Red Bull Division for verification purposes. By Ralph's own account and others' a common thread emerges: the veteran's life-long emotional wrestling match with the memories of the horrors of war he saw.

Footnotes only hint at the terror: "Under heavy attack near Faid Pass and Sidi-bou-Zid, withdrew from Kasserine Pass … attack on Fondouk Gap …. until the war in Tunisia was declared over."

And, "landed at Salerno, Italy, encountered heavy resistance and snipers on ridge above Ruviano … wounded clearing mines near S. Maria Olivero …. counterattack in strength launched by enemy …. first major phase of the drive for Rome breaks through enemy lines," and other cryptic messages.

The advance on Rome is described in excruciating detail.

"The German defenses were at times unbelievable," he wrote. "The last miles were a mass of wrecked German equipment, trucks, cars, 88s and dead bodies. The stench was enough to make a goat puke."

But there would also be another side to the liberation of Rome.

"The Italians went crazy with joy when we moved into the city," he wrote. "Flowers and wine were in abundance. It was some celebration and, believe me, we enjoyed it."

On and on the pages turn to the World War II veteran's remembrances of events large and small on the front lines of combat.

When the book ends, the relief in his words is palpable.

"Well, that's the story of my experience in WWII," he wrote. "I have often wondered why I survived when so many of my buddies didn't."

That timeless lament is heard after every war from its survivors and so too are the words he utters for all veterans who come back home.

"I do know one thing for sure. I had a very difficult time trying to readjust to civilian life," he noted. "Today, post- traumatic stress syndrome is a recognized disorder which is accepted and treated. In the days after WW II, it was not.

"I think my life would have been much better and happier had I been recognized and treated for this problem after I was separated from the Army. I could have put the demons that so often overwhelmed me to rest much sooner."

Carrying on his legacy

The book consumed Deane.

"Editing the text and preparing the maps, photos and time line for my Uncle Ralph's memoir has been a labor of love to the memory of my uncle as well as to honor all those who fought alongside him and the many who were wounded or killed during World War II," Deane said.

Joseph E. Schaps, added a lot of personal family history. More contributions came from Stanley Vomacka and William J. Hampton, also veterans of the Red Bull Division's Company "H."

This weekend, the 135th Regiment is holding a reunion at Mankato.

Deane and her father hope to attend the reunion and meet some of the veterans who served with her uncle.

"500 Days of Front Line Combat" ($15.95) is available at

Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at