“The German mortar crews correct their range settings and their shells begin dropping right among us. Joe Wannamaker sees a big shell fragment tumbling end over end by him. … Joe Behan goes down, hit in the leg. John Huffman suffers a crippling wound in the arm. Fred Woelkers drops with a leg wound. Their bodies lie concealed by the beet foliage and in the intense excitement their absence is scarcely noticed.”
— From “Memories of Service in the Second Platoon, Company K, 407th Infantry, March 1944-Sept. 1945.”
HEIDELBERG, Germany — Fred Woelkers’ war experience, after he was drafted and shipped off to Europe in 1944, had remained largely a mystery to his family, including his son, Jay. Fred, like most men of the era, didn’t discuss it.
“He told me he was shot by a sniper,” Jay Woelkers said. “And he showed me the scar on his leg.”
That was that. Until August, when Jay Woelkers, a Navy commander and medical administrator, was assigned to Sembach.
“When I came to Germany, I thought I really need to know what happened,” he said.
Before long, he found a detailed account on the website “World War II Stories — In Their Own Words” of what happened to the men in his father’s unit — Company K, 407th Regiment, 102nd Infantry Division — in a brutal, little-known battle for the town of Welz.
All 11 in his father’s squad were hit. Four of them, including the then-20-year-old Fred, were hit on the first day of battle.
“They really were sitting ducks,” Jay Woelkers said.
The same month the commander arrived in Germany, he went to Welz. He wanted to see for himself where his father, now 88, had lain all night in a frosty beet field in November nearly 70 years earlier, then charged into a hail of gunfire and mortars.
It was summer, and peaceful.
“The sugar beets were growing. The apple orchard was still there,” Jay Woelkers said.
He called his father in North Carolina to tell him what he’d found, and how he’d felt imagining his father, his hero, as a frightened young man.
“I told him it was sad to me,” Jay Woelkers said. “I actually told him that I was sorry he had to go through that.”
His parents, Fred and Sally, had told him before he left for Sembach that they were too old to travel. They told him to say his good-byes now in case they died while he was gone.
The finding of the battlefield changed their minds.
“I was shocked,” Jay Woelkers said. “They’ve maybe visited me twice the whole time I’ve been in the Navy. They’ve never spent more than two or three days alone with me in my life. And they bought their own tickets — the first time ever.”
The elder Woelkers are to arrive at Frankfurt Airport on Tuesday — their son’s 49th birthday — and stay for Christmas. The family plans a trip to Welz within the first week.
“I don’t know how he’s going to take it,” Jay Woelkers said. “It’s been so many years.”
Woelkers is one of 15 children — the second-youngest — of devout, Detroit working-class Catholics. The family ate dinner together every night. They went to Mass every Sunday, always arriving late and causing a stir as 11 boys and four girls rushed up the aisle into their pew.
“At 18, you were out the door,” Jay Woelkers said. “It wasn’t a mean thing. It was a necessity. There was no money. That was the reality.”
Of the 15 Woelkers children, 10 joined the Navy; one, the Army; and another, the Coast Guard. All but one enlisted; two, including Jay Woelkers, later got college degrees and became officers.
Jay Woelkers is the last one in the family on active duty, with more than 30 years of service.
His duty in Iraq in 2006, at the height of the sectarian violence, and in Afghanistan in 2010 changed him, Jay Woelkers said. He believes war changed his father, who’d been studying engineering at Purdue University before he was drafted.
He wants to give his father the chance to “go back and see it in a different light.”
As for his mother, there are lighter, brighter trips in store. She, like her husband, is descended from German immigrants to the U.S. She grew up hearing about the Christmas traditions from her grandmother, Jay Woelkers said. “She wants to see the Christmas markets.”