By Laura Rowe
It wasn’t until the 50th anniversary of D-Day that John Regnier thought much about the significance of his involvement in World War II.
He and his wife Eva Mae led a very fulfilling life in Stevens Point, Wisconsin — raising six children, active in community and church, and sharing their home and lives with numerous international students.
But he’d never really considered sharing his memories, a firsthand account of the
horrors of witnessing the first slave labor camp liberated by the U.S. Army.
“People didn’t really talk about the war,” he said, until 1994 when a proliferation of books were launched upon the American public, including Steven Ambrose’s “Citizen Soldier,” which included the story of a close friend of Regnier’s, also a veteran. He was surprised to learn so much about his friend’s war experience so many years later. “As veterans of WWII, we didn’t really visit about our shared experiences,” he said.
Regnier had served as supply sergeant for the 182nd Medical Battalion, supporting the 4th Armored Division during the Third Army’s drive across France and Germany. He had already witnessed many cruel casualties of war while supervising ambulance companies and working 12-hour shifts in makeshift field hospitals just behind the lines of fighting, but nothing could have prepared him for the day that his medical convoy pulled over to the side of the road in Ohrdruf, Germany. The slave labor camp had just been liberated by the U.S. Army.
“There’d been limited knowledge about concentration camps, but not much was known about them,” Regnier said.
Regnier, who was 23 at the time, described the scene in a letter home to Marshall, Minnesota: “My battalion headquarters unit had the unique experience of coming onto the Ohrdruf concentration camp just as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (Allied supreme commander), Gen. Omar Bradley and Gen. George Patton arrived to go through this first big death camp liberated by the U.S. Army.
Enclosed in the letter home were photos taken that day by Regnier and his friend, Fred Kercheval . The photos chronicled the U.S. high command walking through the abandoned camp littered with dead bodies — some lying on the ground where they’d been machine-gunned down, others in stacked in three large mass-grave pits, a crematorium with two large gas ovens, and a storage shed full of dead bodies.
“It was a tremendously shocking experience to all of us,” Regnier said. “It was just numbed silence. War casualties are bad enough to see, but those poor slave laborers (camp prisoners) were totally defenseless.”
Eisenhower wrote in a letter that same day, April 12, 1945: “The things I say beggar description…The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where there were piled up 20 to 30 naked men killed by starvation, Patton would not even enter. He said he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give firsthand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’”
Eisenhower told the approximately 150 troops gathered there that day to document the horrors in photos. “Gen. Eisenhower said, ‘I want the world to know what we are seeing,’ “ said Regnier, taking those words to heart.
April 27 this year — the 69th anniversary remembrance of the Holocaust — also marks Regnier’s 69th anniversary as a firsthand witness to some of the most horrific war crimes committed by men. And he continues to share his painful story, death camp photos and war memorabilia so that others never forget.
In a letter written home April 16, 1945, from Germany, Regnier recalled that horrific day forever etched in his mind: “The other day I was fortunate to be able to visit a newly over-run German concentration camp in which were stationed war and political prisoners from all of these countries, including Russia. When I say fortunate, I really don’t mean it that way, as it was a sight that no civilized human being should see, but what I do mean is that is proved to me beyond any conceivable doubt that the German people who concurred in such acts are the most cruel, inhuman and uncivilized murderers that the world has ever known.
“It was a nice quiet little village along one of the main highways with the sun shining down on the green grass and rolling hills in the adjacent areas. One would never dream that dozens of starved and lime-devoured corpses lay only a short distance from the town in a concentration camp…
“In the German haste to destroy all evidence of their crimes, they had set up a makeshift crematorium around the bend of the road…there was a large pit where over 2,000 lay buried after being beaten, starved and shot to death by the German SS guards…God only knows how many poor people met their death in this high-geared factory of death. The dead still lying on the ground were a sight to see. They were wasted with starvation as their arms and legs were sticks and the flesh was as thin as muslin…The sight of this death factory has left an indelible impression on my mind that I know will never be forgotten. “
And yet today, years later, Regnier says the camp photos still trigger nauseating reactions. “When I look at these pictures, I can almost smell it (death).”
The 92-year-old veteran carries these vivid memories with him, traveling throughout Wisconsin, willing to share his story when asked. Although his wife of 63 years passed away in 2012, he reluctantly manages to carry on without her by his side, accompanied by his children, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He retired from Sentry Insurance in 1984 after working there 32 years, mainly in human resources management.
“I certainly try to motivate young people to learn about history,” Regnier said, his sparkling blue eyes and relaxed demeanor belying the tragic scenes he’s witnessed. “It really concerns me regarding the lack of attention to what’s happened before and what’s happening now. I feel strongly that we need to understand the past to be alert to policies today that can affect the future.”
This motivation has led him to speak to interested groups from local elementary and high school students to University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point students and teachers’ groups.
Although the causalities of war are horrific — physically, mentally and spiritually — it can churn out some amazing survivors like Regnier, said Susan Brewer, professor of U.S. history at UWSP. Hollywood has a tendency to romanticize war and its heroes, but that picture does not portray the truth. “War is not redeeming, “ she said, adding that 18 war veterans commit suicide daily in the U.S. “There are many veterans who are not coping and we won’t know their story. What’s redeeming is John’s capacity to share the intensity of his battlefield experience.
“John has, in his way, become a peace activist. He wants to talk about how horrible war is. He was an eyewitness to a horrible trauma at a young age. His mission in the war was to heal people. He was not prepared for witnessing this shock … that people could do this to others. He wants you to know that there is evil out there in people. …And yet John remains a very generous and very loving person.”
“The man’s phenomenal,” said Darryle Clott, history instructor/Ethics in Leadership associate who coordinates Viterbo University’s annual Holocaust Educators’ Workshop for teachers, which Regnier participates in. “When I first met John, I knew his story had to be told.”
His memoir, “Denying the Deniers,” written by Susan Hessel, will be published in April. Regnier’s experiences also are part of a Wisconsin Public Television documentary “Wisconsin WW II Stories Part II: Europe” aired in November, 2003. An oral history of Regnier’s life is available on videotape through the Portage County Historical Society.
In the book’s preface, Clott writes: “I decided that the time had come for John’s story to be written… One can read about the statistics, facts and figures of war, but it is not until one reads the personal accounts that it comes alive for us and makes us appreciate the extreme challenges and difficulties our veterans experienced and how much we owe them. (Regnier’s) story… is not only about the war, it is a love story and one of faith.”
Regnier hopes people will remember the Holocaust always, referring mindfully to the quote now emblazoned at the memorial site of the former Dachau concentration camp in Germany: “Never again.”
He also believes strongly that veterans must continue to share their stories, referring to philosopher George Santayana’s famous quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”“I would like people to see that phrase daily so that they would always remember,” he added wistfully, shaking his head.”War is an inhuman way of dealing with problems.”