Salute to veterans: A chaotic final year of World War II

Salute to veterans: A chaotic final year of World War II

When he was told the Germans had bombed New York City, Charlie Dukes didn't know what to believe.

The last year of World War II was unadulterated chaos for the Georgetown man.

He was captured by the Germans and used as slave labor, then by the Russians, who used him as a bargaining chip and finally imprisoned by his own Army, which court-martialed him for desertion when he tried to return to his own lines.

In his year of wandering, he joined other troops in looting German homes. But his diamond haul went up in smoke, impossible as that sounds.

After the machine gun combat, prison camps, lice, not bathing for months, living on the street, Dukes, 91, says he's happy with his life. He's still married to his college sweetheart, Gracie, with whom he had four children.

He lives in a house he built himself from pine he found in Michigan, speaks to classes on his war experiences and wrote a 1997 book, "Good Morning: But The Nightmares Never End."

He and Gracie look younger than their years and enjoy their conversations, with her filling him in on details that he can't get off the tip of his tongue. For several years, they had a museum in their home, and she has collected scrapbooks of memories.

Dukes was a college student at Indiana University when he joined a few fraternity brothers volunteering for the Marines. The Marines wouldn't take him, because of his 6-foot, 130-pound frame. But the Army did, on Oct. 26, 1942.

After basic, Dukes continued his education at Fordham University as part of the engineer corps.

As D-Day neared, he was in mountain training with the 104th Infantry Timberwolves, an infantry unit specializing in nighttime combat. The division saw almost 200 days of fighting in northwestern Europe as it fought through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany.

Dukes heard about D-Day while he performed night duties at an officer's club in Colorado. By early September, he was clambering down a rope ladder from a ship, into a Landing Craft Infantry assault ship, and onto the beaches near Cherbourg.

From France his unit moved into Holland, where Dukes had a life-changing experience.

He was lead scout for a platoon heading into enemy territory. The Germans opened up with machine guns, missing him but killing a friend, Private Fred Keeler, who was next in line. His squad leader was killed by an exploding shell.

Unable to sleep because of constant fire from the "Jerries," Duke made a pact with God. If he could see the sun rise, Dukes would say a cheery "Good morning!" for the rest of his life.

Which he does. "All the time, even if it's afternoon," Dukes says. "Sometimes people think it's a little strange, but it's my promise."

Thanksgiving turned his situation. On that day, his unit was trying to take Hill 303 near Eschweiler, Germany. This was the border, the Siegfried Line.

He'd been slogging for days without a change of clothes and he had trench foot. He was afraid to take his boots off, afraid he wouldn't be able to get them back on. Firefights were frequent.

On Thanksgiving Day, a shell exploded near him, hitting him in at least five places with shrapnel.

Just a few years ago, Gracie says, a shrapnel fragment worked its way out of his life.

"There was no pain, it just wanted out," he adds.

Left behind because of his injuries, he was crawling forward to regroup when he heard the sound of German Panzer tanks. One ran over a replacement whose name Dukes never learned. L Company had 78 casualties that day.

Dukes was marched by German soldiers to their rear lines; back at home, his family was told he was missing in action.

After hobbling his way for about 10 days, Dukes crossed the Rhine River. He was taken to Stalag VIIA, where he had his first meal in some time: grass soup, potatoes and black bread.

A medic worked on his wounds. Later, he was given new civilian clothes — from a concentration camp, he says. His shirt had bullet holes in the back.

He was in Stalag VIIA for three weeks. After that, his group was put in boxcars, about 70 men to a car, and sent to the interior of Germany — some of the time under fire from U.S. planes.

As Christmas Eve neared, the Germans sang "Silent Night." Dukes felt a tap on his shoulder and looked around.

There was no one there. "I think it was the Lord right behind me," he says. From there, he went to a labor camp near the Czech border, where he worked in a bakery and cut ice with inadequate tools.

With the Germans gaining ground back in the Battle of the Bulge, Dukes had no idea how the war was going. That was when he was told that Germany had bombed New York. He was taunted by Hitler Youth members.

But the European war had turned for good, and already Dukes could hear Russian artillery in the distance.

Some of his guards fled from their posts. One guard, nicknamed Old Baldy, offered to walk them toward the American lines, pretending to still hold them captive — anything to avoid being taken by the Russians.

"We had to stay off the roads because they were controlled by Russian artillery," Dukes remembers.

Soviet soldiers did catch up with them, Mongolians, Dukes says. They were casual about raping women and shooting German men, including camp guards.

Dukes worried that they might take him back to Russia, or send them to Siberia — thousands of U.S. soldiers endured this fate, he says.

After Dukes settled in at a Russian-controlled POW camp at Luckenwalde, Gen. George Patton's Army approached the gates. But the Russians continued to hold them.

Dukes walked away from the camp. He continued walking. At times, American soldiers thought he was a war refugee. Finally, he joined with other soldiers at the Allied lines on the Elbe River.

The Russians were exchanging Allied troops for their own, 1 for 1, on a pontoon bridge. Dukes waited. There were fewer and fewer Russian troops arriving. Finally, he decided to crawl across a temporary bridge and escape, making it to his own side three weeks after the war was supposedly over.

After a stop in Halle, he woke up sick and confused on a plane headed to Rheims, France.

There, nurses cut away his filthy clothing and burned it, along with some diamonds he had taken. He accepted the loss philosophically.

He weighed in at 109 pounds.

Dukes was taken to Camp Lucky Strike, near Le Havre, France. There he was interrogated by a U.S. captain, who suggested he'd deserted, rather than walked feebly toward his compatriots.

In London, he was granted a furlough, and considered deserting, for real this time, rather than face court-martial. He slept on the streets or on a church pew. Finally, London Bobbies arrested him and handed him over to the Americans.

Dukes was told that because of his good record, he was free — once he was three miles out to sea. He landed in Boston.

The Army had fed him rich food and vitamins. But back in Illinois, he was still sick when he came home to his father and mother.

After college, Dukes worked in a bank and at a variety of jobs. He married Gracie in 1949.

"But he still had nightmares for a long time," Gracie says.

"I'm happy to be alive," he says, "and I say a little prayer every night that I'll be alive the next morning."

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