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Century-old World War II veteran left behind detailed records of service

By RAY WESTBROOK | Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Texas | Published: January 19, 2019

LUBBOCK, Texas (Tribune News Service) — Marvin Koehler, who died Dec. 29 in Lubbock at age 100, had kept detailed records of where he served during World War II.

His notes indicate he actually was drafted into the military for a year and began serving on Oct. 16, 1941, before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

"After a few weeks of basic training, Pearl Harbor changed this to several eventful years," he wrote.

Koehler was chosen for a 90-day Officer Candidate School to serve in an artillery unit.

"I was assigned as a second lieutenant to the 88th Infantry Division being formed at Camp Gruper, Oklahoma (near Muskogee), late in May, 1942. We trained there in 'Louisiana maneuvers' until Aug. 29, 1943."

He remembered for his records that men of his division were put aboard a large ship headed for Casablanca in Africa. "We arrived there on the 15th of December, 1943."

Then, he remembered, "We were on a fast ship that could elude submarines (we were told), since we were going un-escorted. The division was put aboard antiquated boxcars (said to hold 40 men or eight horses), and we traveled through the Atlas Mountains for three days to a training area near Magenta, Algeria. Magenta is located at the edge of the Sahara Desert."

He remembered, "On Feb. 1, 1944, we sailed for Italy in a large convoy, from Oran, Algeria. On the first night out, the convoy was bombed by German planes out of Southern France. A few ships sank, but fortunately none were troop ships.

"We landed at Naples, and my unit, the 337th Field Artillery Battalion, went into position near the Gariglano River where we fired numerous missions until the big attack early in May 1944. This attack was designed to relieve the men at Anzio and capture Rome."

Koehler wrote, "The artillery preparation with an unusually large number of artillery pieces – several hundred in number, firing for an hour – launched the attack. Our division was the first into Rome on June 5, 1944."

His notes continued the account:

"While crossing the Tiber River in Rome, the German artillery hit two of my trucks and some men were lost there. The Germans retreated rapidly north to the Arno River at Florence. The enemy had a town near the river that was used as a strong point and this had to be eliminated.

"As liaison officer and forward observer in position to observe, I was selected to get a precision adjustment on a high building in the center of the town. This data was transmitted to about 12 battalions of artillery."

Koehler wrote, "A 'TOT' (time on target) was prepared whereby battalions fire at different intervals in order for all shells to land at the same time. This surprise was very effective, and our infantry moved through the area quickly and safely.

"We crossed the river and entered the Appenine Mountains where the enemy established their 'Gothic line' of defense. On Mount Grande I got out of my hole to get an azimuth to fire on the enemy when I was hit with a 120-mm shell. I still have a fragment in my left shoulder. I was sent to a field hospital for a while. Upon my return to my unit, I learned I was promoted to captain and was assigned as a battery commander."

Koehler's division spent the winter in the snow in the mountains, and he remembered that only small skirmishes happened due to the difficulty of movement.

"Margaret Bourke-White, Life photographer, came up to our position during this time and took some pictures. Around the end of March 1945, when the snows started to melt, the final attack was launched, and the division broke into the Po Valley. The Germans started to surrender in large numbers."

He remembered, "I was given an exciting job at this time. An infantry company mounted in trucks with an artillery battery in support was sent forward as a spear to drive forward to the Alps to block the Germans from retreating into the Alps on a major highway. In the foothills we learned an Italian 'black-shirt' force still loyal to the Germans was left in a town to delay our advance."

But a peculiar thing happened to the "black-shirt" force that was loyal to the German Army:

It decided to leave town and follow the Germans.

Koehler noticed that the retreating Germans had begun firing artillery back toward the outer edges of the town to keep the Italians from leaving town and following them.

He knew what to do:

"When we determined that, our artillery fired in front of them and moved forward to mesh the fire together.

It was fire from front and back of the Black Shirts that was moving together into what was essentially annihilation of the force.

"Nevertheless, the few Italians who survived and were captured had second thoughts about their German buddies."

He wrote, "As our unit moved forward, the word came down from division headquarters that the war in Italy was over as of noon May 2, 1945."

He remembered, "Our battalion pulled guard duty over several thousand prisoners at Vipetino, Italy, a few miles from the Brenner Pass. While there, Capt. Lester and his men of Battery A discovered a cave containing many barrels of gold looted by the enemy from the bank of Rome. They did not have time to get it into Germany. Officials of the Rome bank were notified and the gold was returned to them."

Koehler's battalion was moved south to an area near Caserta, Italy.

"All of us were very relieved to learn of the atomic bombing of Japan and subsequent end of the war in the Pacific. After slugging through Italian mud, climbing mountains, freezing in the winter line, we were in no mood to be then sent to the Pacific."

Koehler came home in October, and married Mary Catherine Baily on Nov. 21, 1945.

He had come back to finish out a lifetime of 100 years.

___

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