South Dakota farmer recalls World War II experiences from Clark County to the Italian front and home again

Bill Danekas was born and raised on a farm located 3 1/2 miles northeast of Raymond. He was 16 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Union Farmer-Do you remember what you were doing when you heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor?

Danekas-We were out shooting rabbits from the back of an old Model T coupe. When we got home my mother said "the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor." We said, "where the *#*# is Pearl Harbor?" We got out our maps and started looking.

Union Farmer-How did the war affect life on the farm?

Danekas-We went right into rationing. We went out and got the serial numbers off every tire we owned. Prices were frozen. You could only get so much for a pig or a steer. My dad had a '41 Chrysler. How could you get any better than that? They didn't make a '42. So he went through the war with good tires. There wasn't a lot of running around. Sunday night movies were a way of life. I don't think there was anyone who wasn't touched in some way. There was more togetherness. In Raymond there was a list of names and addresses of everyone from there who was in the service. You could get an address and send them a card. There was a sign- "If you don't write you're wrong!"

Union Farmer-When did you go into the service?

Danekas-I graduated from Raymond High School in '43. I was 18 in July and on the 26th of July I went into Clark and registered for the draft. I told them that the next time there was a call I wanted to be on it. Everyone else was going and I wanted to go too. That was in July. I got my call in October and went to Ft. Snelling for my physical. From there we went down to Camp Fanning in Texas. I did my basic training in intelligence and reconnaissance.

Union Farmer-Where did you go from there?

Danekas-I went to Camp Hale Colorado where I joined the 10th Mountain Division-ski troops. Camp Hale was just around the corner from what is now Vail. Our camp was around 10,000 ft. The timberline is at 12,000 ft. up there. I took rock-climbing school. We left there on orders to go to Camp Swift in Texas. That was a terrible jolt. Camp Hale froze every night. Camp Swift was 100 degrees when we got there.

Union Farmer-Did you get to go home before you went overseas?

Danekas-I got a furlough. There was one telephone in Raymond. It was in the grocery store. How could I tell my parents? If I wrote to them I would have been in Redfield for three days before they got the letter. I got on the phone and called the operator. I asked if she could call the grocery store at Raymond. She said, "I could help if you had the number." I said "can you call the operator in Watertown?" She said "yes." I said, "you call her and ask her to dial Raymond. She'll know how to do it and that's what happened. That's how I got word home.

Union Farmer-When was this?

Danekas-We got sent overseas in December of '44. It took us 21 days to get from Virginia to Italy. We were in a convoy. It seemed like we went around the Azores about three times. There were German submarines. The destroyers were out there. It was quite a show. We were in Naples Harbor on the 23rd of December. .

Union Farmer-What was that like?

Danekas-l grew up in the Depression. I know what it is like to be hard up. But we never starved. In Italy on that Christmas Eve was the first time I ever saw real starvation. It's a sight I'll never forget. You see in Italy there were no adult men. All that was left were women and children. The Germans had taken all of the men to work. We headed north in boxcars 40 X 8s-that would hold 40 men or eight horses. They were almost exactly like the little French boxcar that sits on the State Fairgrounds in Huron.

Union Farmer-You were headed for the front?

Danekas-We went as far north as Pisa. The Leaning Tower was within view of where we had to bivouac. The Germans were just beyond that. The war was in a kind of stalemate. They had driven the Germans up into the mountains and they couldn't get them out of there. Our first mission was to get up Mt. Belvidere and what they called Reva Ridge. That was where the Germans had dug in. It's a lot easier to control a mountain when you are on top of it than when you have to crawl up the side of it. We were trained for that. We had people who were mountain climbers. They went up there and worked for several days without the Germans knowing they were there. They did a lot of night work. They drove pitons into the mountain on several routes. We took several companies o men one night and went up the side of that mountain on ropes. We got to the top and that was our baptism of fire the next morning. The Germans didn't know we were there and they were eating breakfast when we moved in. That was our first encounter with the Germans and it wasn't good. We lost a lot of men.

Union Farmer-That was tough.

Danekas-One of the things that was hardest for me was to get used to these dead bodies lying around. I grew up in Clark County and I never drove into Raymond or Clark and saw bodies lying dead on the street. The Italian people up in those mountain areas were hard up. They were cold and they were out of shoes and clothing-so they helped themselves. We didn't care if we saw an Italian running around in a German hat or coat. But we objected very much to see an Italian with a pair of GI boots.

Union Farmer-Where did you go from there?

Danekas-We pushed them to the edge of the Po Valley where we stopped. We tried to count our losses and get replacements. I'll never forget the morning of April 12. We were lying on the south side of the mountain enjoying the sunshine when someone came along and said President Roosevelt had died. There wasn't anyone too excited because we knew that at one o'clock we were going over the top of that mountain. Seeing young guys of 19 or 20 dying around us was a lot tougher than hearing that the President had died. The Po Valley was a long push. It was a dirty dusty place. We had the Germans on the run there.

Union Farmer-Was there ever any feeling that because the war was almost over that you didn't need to push as hard on the Italian front?

Danekas-We weren't ever stalemated. The Germans were still in the mountains in Austria. They were- dug into -the sides of mountains up there. They had 88s in there that they could slide shut on. You could see them open and fire and slide shut again. We had to get around Lake Garda. That was where their stronghold was. One night we saw this terrible display and pistols firing in the air. We found out the next day that that was the day that Mussolini was hung upside down. We were close enough to see the celebration. We were told the war was over. I think we all drank a little too much wine that night. One of the scariest situations we were in wasn't too long before the war was over. We were going down to Bologna. We saw these planes coming and we knew they were American planes. We thought they-were ours until they started strafing us. We found out that the Germans had captured them in Africa and had saved them for a time like that. I was an infantry_ soldier. I have a combat infantry badge. I had a friend from the Turton area come over. He said when I see these guys with a chest full of ribbons they don't impress me much. But when I see that combat infantry badge then I know they were where the action was.

Union Farmer-When did they send you home?

Danekas-l was 20 years old on July 26th. That was the day we boarded a Victory ship to head for Japan. In the middle of the Atlantic there was a hurricane. I woke up one. Morning and there was water in where we were sleeping. It wasn't long before the lights came on and they said to abandon the hold. By this time the A-bomb had been dropped. They put us on a troop train and then out to Camp Carson in Colorado for discharge. That was a sad day for me because you had to have 50 points to be discharged. I had 49. So I had to stay in the army. They sent me to Camp Campbell in Kentucky. I spent my third Christmas in the service. I was in a group that had to go to Chicago and to Soldier Field. Harry Truman was there. He told us that the war was over and that we could get our discharges.

Union Farmer-How was it when you got home?

Danekas-I got out in '46. There was an election coming up. One of my neighbors was running for county commissioner. He gave me his card and I told him I'd vote for him if I were old enough. I think that old gentleman went to his grave thinking I had lied to him. How could I be gone for 30 months or more and still couldn't vote? I couldn't vote and I couldn't buy a beer until July 1946. There's a large granite monument between Camp Hale and Leadville, CO. When we shipped out in 1944 there were about 6,000 of us. Of that group, 963 of the best of American young manhood didn't come home alive. Their names are on this marker. Our death loss was very heavy. I'm very fortunate.
10th Mountain Division Association

Updated: Nov. 16, 2001