Longtime NR area resident recalls his service in World War II
RIGHT AT HOME — World War II veteran Richard Crumb is comfortable in his rural home near Matawan, and for good reason. His grandfather built the home in 1875 and he was born there, as was his father. (Star Eagle photo by Jim Lutgens)
By JIM LUTGENS
Richard Crumb was born and still lives on the family farm built by his grandfather, John, in 1875 — two years before New Richland came into existence. He and his siblings walked about two and a half miles to to Matawan for school, something he enjoyed.
“I liked going to school,” said Crumb. “It was a good thing. That was brought forth from my parents, that education was a good thing.”
Since New Richland had no school buses, he went to high school in Freeborn, where he was elected class president and delivered the speech for the graduating class of 1942.
Crumb, 90, still gets around on his own. He still drives. He’ll take visitors out to one of his fields and kindly send them home with sweet corn. He has an easy smile and a twinkle in his eye as he talks about the past — which he remembers well. He can tell you about the time he and his brothers defeated the New Richland team in baseball. And he can tell you about World War II.
Crumb was one of 13 honored as grand marshals of the 2014 New Richland Farm and City Days parade — one of 13 remaining World War II veterans in the area.
The easy-going Crumb got involved with the war when his younger brother, Dennis (Bill), was drafted.
“I thought he was such a gentle soul, he shouldn’t be going to war,” said Crumb, who went to the draft board and asked if he could go in his brother’s place. They said O.K. Crumb was inducted in late 1944 and called up in ’45, traveling first to Fort Snelling, then to Chicago and finally to Camp Robinson, Ark.
“Everything then was by train,” said Crumb, who described basic training as, “Real violent and brutal in war time.”
And definitely not easy.
“In basic, there was a guy who said to the Sergeant, ‘I’m not going to do a damn thing you say!’” said Crumb. “The sergeant hit him, knocked him down on his back. He landed on the mud and slid.”
Crumb had a scary moment himself in boot camp, though not involving a superior officer.
“We were doing a field exercise and they were spraying a lot of water around,” said Crumb. “We were told to rest, on our stomachs, and I raised my head to look. There was a big snake right next to my face. I could see his tongue coming toward me. I was paralyzed with fear.”
But not too paralyzed to act. The rifle he was carrying had a bayonet, and he got the snake.
“I couldn’t talk for about five minutes, I was so scared,” he said. “I was afraid it was a cottonmouth. It turned out to be a big water snake.”
He’ll also never forget one of his first machine gun drills, using a tripod-based, air-cooled weapon that shot 700 rounds per minute with a range of 100 yards. He left his sergeant speechless.
“The target was about 12 feet long, and we had a 250-round canister,” explained Crumb. “I fired it, emptied the canister.”
The target was completely destroyed.
“The sergeant, he didn’t say a word,” said Crumb. “Something like that was almost impossible to do. I was brought up with hunting, so it didn’t make me nervous to fire anything like that.”
A couple weeks later, during mortar training, a First Lieutenant showed up.
“He fired off names,” said Crumb. “Mine too.”
So off he went for three months to Fort Jefferson in Joplin, Mo, for battle medic training. From there he was sent to Fort Sam in Houston for surgery technician training.
Crumb was very grateful for the medical training, especially since the men he attended basic training with were headed for the Battle of the Bulge, in which the U.S. lost some 60,000 soldiers in the biggest battle of the war.
After six more weeks of pre-overseas medical training in Springfield, Mo. — “It seemed like I was always on a train going someplace,” said Crumb — he went home on furlough, but first stopped to see a buddy in Boston.
“We were in a real small town, and I’ll always remember it,” said Crumb. “If you were a soldier and went to a bar or a restaurant, you could not pay. They gave you everything you wanted to eat and drink.”
In late 1945, Crumb was aboard a ship with 4600 others sailing out of Boston Harbor.
“The first four days, it was like we were on a big lake,” said Crumb. “On the fifth day, in the North Atlantic, here comes a real big storm. About half the guys got seasick right away. All you could hear was the roar of the water.”
“One thing that always amazed me,” said Crumb. “As soon as those guys got off the ship, they were well. It was just like you flipped a switch.”
He landed in Laharve, France — near Normandy — a few days after fighting had ended.
The soldiers were shipped by boxcar — 40 men per car, standing room only — to Belgium, then another train to Germany.
“The tracks were all beat up, and train went off the tracks and onto the ties,” said Crumb. “It took a half a day to put it back on the track.”
The soldiers were relieved — literally.
“We could go potty then,” said Crumb.
He got a machine gun welcome to Germany.
“The first city I remember was Auken,” he said. “We got there about 2 a.m., there was frost on the ground, and I was about the eighth guy out. All of a sudden there was a bunch of machine gun fire and everyone hit the ground. The firing stopped, and I could see a fire down the tracks. It was British officers making tea, and they were shooting at Germans stealing food. If you ask me, those British officers were a little careless.”
The next stop he’ll never forget: Dechau, home to one of Hitler’s extermination camps.
There were no bodies, but a terrible stench hung in the air.
“They had left everything the way it was,” said Crumb. “There were six belts going into gas chambers. War is sometimes not very nice. They did some horrible experiments there on human beings. Right then, everyone understood what we were fighting for. Some impressions you get when you’re 19 years old, you don't ever forget them.”
Soldiers were under orders not to speak to any German person, but Crumb did so anyway.
“You see a kid, you’ve got to give them something,” said Crumb, who would share his food rations. “The children had nothing to do with the war.”
Yet another train took Crumb to Southern Germany, to a big field hospital in Stuttgart.
“One thing I remember distinctly about that,” said Crumb. “The whole city was gone, but that hospital — which had a big cross on top — was never touched by bombs.”
There, Crumb was interviewed by a Colonel, who put him in charge of 30 captured German Cavalry horses — his job for the duration of his military service.
“I was on my own,” he said. “I would draw six POWs each day to help care for the horses, used for recreation by the doctors and nurses. There were 2000 doctors and nurses in this hospital. It was a German hospital, real well built.”
Crumb enjoyed riding the horses himself and became friends with some of the POWs. And there were other perks.
“People farmed around each of these little villages,” said Crumb. “Most grew grapes and made wine. One thing we’d do was go out, test the wine, and see how fast we could get back on the horses. That was a lot of fun.”
But, not as much fun as coming home.
“I spent 11 months there, then I came home,” said Crumb. “I was so happy to come home.”
Staying connected with home is big for a soldier, according to Crumb.
“The big thing is mail from home,” he said. “Without it, most guys would get depressed, myself included. One time the plane with our mail got shot down. After about a month, we got all these burnt letters. Mail call is one place everyone went to.”
And while there may have been leisurely moments, being at war is never easy.
“A soldier’s life, there are always these times with so much pressure, so much tension, so much violence,” said Crumb. “The rest of the time is kind of boring.”
One time that wasn’t boring was when Crumb stayed out all night watching for Germans who were stealing grain from the stable.
“I was half scared to death,” he said.
Nobody showed, but a young prisoner told him, “I think I know where those people are.”
So Crumb went to investigate and found a bunker full of 20 mm cannons and “piles” of Maser rifles.
“There were three or four guys sitting there, and they didn’t move,” said Crumb. “All I wanted to do was get out of there. There was an MP nearby. I pulled a grenade and my .45. I thought I’d drop the grenade if anyone followed me. I was so scared when I got out of there.”
Crumb figures discovering the weapons was a big reason he attained the rank of Buck Sergeant, commanding 176 Sergeants when he left for home.
“When I got to Bremerhaven and saw that American flag, I felt so good,” said Crumb. “My job was over.
“The Germans, they had the best trained army in the world at that time. They just couldn’t keep up with us.”
After the war, Crumb served nine years on the school board, five as Scoutmaster and 16 working with hospice patients.
“Scoutmaster was the best job I ever had,” he said. “We started with eight boys and ended up with 50 in New Richland.”
He guided seven Eagle Scouts.
“I had some good boys,” he said. “They went hard.”
Three of Crumb’s brothers served in World War II: First Lieutenant Vincent, Staff Sergeant Thornton, and Corporal Maxon. Another brother, Corporal Robert, served in Korea.
“Every one of us came back alive,” said Crumb. “My mother, she did a lot praying.”