First Army World War II Veterans Recall V-E Day
by U.S. Army Warren Marlow
June 12, 2020
With more than 100 years of service to the nation, Soldiers of First Army look to their history as guides in uncertain times. This year, First Army joins the world in celebrating a milestone 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, or V-E Day, when Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allied Forces and fighting on the continent ended.
Written into that history is the story of two veterans of World War II who experienced the conflict firsthand, including the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Andrew Kiniry, 98, and Jack Appel, 96, shared their experience 75 years ago.
Andrew Kiniry (left) served as a First Army medic during the war and noted that he was in uniform for three years, three months, and three days.
Despite his age, Kiniry could still rattle off precise dates of the movements of his unit and the numbers of Soldiers assigned to those units. A resident of Minotala, N.J., his time in the military began near his current home in August of 1942.
“I went into the service at Fort Dix, N.J., and five days later they put us on a train and shipped us down to what is now Fort Gordon, outside of Augusta, Ga.,” he said.
In the European theatre, Kiniry served in the 45th Evacuation Hospital. He was not part of the initial Normandy invasion, arriving on Omaha Beach the week after D- Day, but he still had plenty of wounded Soldiers to treat.
“When we hit the beach, it was cleared of all fighting but it was a sea of activity because of moving equipment in,” Kiniry said. “We got transportation to a town several miles inland and that’s where our first setup was. It was a 400-bed hospital and my job was taking care of injured Soldiers.”
Specifically, Kiniry tended to operative and post-operative patients. Besides possessing medical acumen, Soldiers stationed there had to be adept at tearing down and setting up tent hospitals in order to move with the ever-shifting front line.
“The Army said it would take nine minutes to put them up,” Kiniry said. “But I tell you, after you put up a few of them, particularly if it was hot, you’re not making that kind of time.”
One day, Kiniry’s unit caught a break from raising tents when they occupied a school building that served as a makeshift hospital. But in that building, Kiniry would participate in one of the most famous battles of the World War II.
“I went on duty at 8 o’clock at night on the 15th of December, taking care of patients,” he said. “At 5:30 the next morning, we’re getting things ready for breakfast and so forth. There was a strange sound, a whistling sound. That was the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge.”
A few hours later, things got more intense when the Germans attacked an ordnance depot that sat about 200 yards from the hospital.
“The Germans lit the whole area up,” Kiniry said.
The Americans had hung blankets around the windows for a blackout effect. Luckily, those same blankets also blocked some shrapnel.
“If it hadn’t been for the blankets,” Kiniry said, “People would have really got cut to ribbons, I believe.”
Kiniry moved around 150 patients into an air raid shelter. In the shelter, he and his patients could do little more than wait and hope.
“I was terrified,” Kiniry said. “I never held a gun in my hand when I was in the service,” Kiniry said. “If our GIs hadn’t stopped them, we could have been in big trouble. Our infantry and artillery were able to hold them back. We repaired the building the best we could so we could receive patients again.”
About six weeks later, the battle ended in Allied victory, a precursor to the end of European fighting.
On V-E Day, Kiniry found himself in the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar in central Germany. Even for a wartime medic accustomed to seeing atrocities up close, he said it was a harrowing experience.
“That was the most horrible sight I’ve ever seen. I don’t want to see another sight like it,” Kiniry recalled. “These people were supposed to be human, but they didn’t look like it. They were skeletons. I cannot really describe how horrendous it was to see these people treated like animals, even worse. To me, the severest punishment is not enough for the people who did this.”
Due to the fragile state of the victims, their condition required Kiniry and his fellow Soldiers to treat the inmates with extreme care for the next two weeks.
“You couldn’t handle them like you did a wounded soldier,” Kiniry said. “Ours were hurt, yes, but the concentration camp inmates, you had to watch how you touched them. The way we brought them into the ward, we put them on a litter. There were four of us and we’d each take a corner of a sheet and pick them up and set them on the bed because you couldn’t just roll them over. You were afraid to touch them. You tried to do as little damage as possible and I don’t think we did any.”
Kiniry and his fellow Soldiers also had to take care when feeding the former prisoners.
“With the food, they would point at their stomach and shake their head after eating half theire food, they couldn't take that much of it," Kiniry said. "Their stomachs were so shriveled they just couldn't take the food.
For their treatment of those at Buchenwald, Kiniry and his fellow Soldiers received a commendation from the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office.
While Kiniry helped treat First Army Soldiers as a medic, fellow Soldier Jack Appel (left) served as a messenger with the 17th Signal Operation Battalion, which was attached to First Army during the war.
Appel had skipped two years of high school and was within a semester of graduating college at 19 when his draft notice arrived.
“I asked for a deferment so I could graduate and the draft board would not give it to me,” he said. “While going to college, I worked as a night telephone operator. Because of that, they assigned me to the Signal Corps.”
But he almost never made it to Europe, or anywhere else, after coming down with spinal meningitis after attending basic training for a month.
“I lost the hearing in my left ear, I was dying, and the Red Cross sent for my parents,” said Appel.
After a 56-day hospitalization and a four-week convalescence, Appel made his way to First Army headquarters at Clifton College in Bristol, England. He was part of a contingent left there on D-Day, he said, in case the D-Day invasion failed. He arrived in Normandy four weeks later and worked in the message center of First Army headquarters.
“We were always with the headquarters,” he said. “We could be two miles from the front or 40 miles from the front, depending on how fast they were going.”
Being deaf in one ear sometimes made for unusual experiences.
“In Normandy, a German plane dropped two 500-pound bombs on the farm field where we had our tents and I didn’t hear a thing. All I remember being raised off the ground when the bombs fell.”
Like Kiniry, Appel found himself in Buchenwald on V-E Day.
“The Germans had left already and the camp had been taken over by the prisoners,” Appel said. “We went through the whole camp that day and the sights and the smells were unbelievable.”
Appel said that because of his near-fatal bout with spinal meningitis, he kept his distance from the prisoners. But he would always remember what he saw there.
“I did walk around the camp and I saw the dead bodies,” Appel said. “They were piled up like cordwood outside of the crematorium. The next day, the camp was closed by the medics.”
After the war, both men started the next chapter of their lives. Kiniry worked as a machinist. In 2019, he made his way back to Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany to receive commendations. Decades removed from the war, Kiniry saw a sincere appreciation for his service in World War II.
“They come up and shake your hand and it was genuine, not something put on,” Kiniry said. “I didn’t like the war but it had to be and I was glad to be able to do it.”
Appel worked as a Wall Street broker. He received the French Legion of honor in 2008, which he called the highlight of his military career. Like Kiniry, Appel saw the appreciation of grateful nations in one of his many trips to World War II battle sites.
“I go every couple of years and I was there for the 75th anniversary of D Day and had my picture taken with the president of France,” Appel said. “He came up to shake my hand.”
Stateside, the Boca Raton, Fla. resident maintains a lifelong passion for bowling, which began at age 5 when his father owned a Brooklyn bowling alley. Appel has qualified for several National Senior Games.
While their service days were long ago, those times are not forgotten. Now an appreciative world – one that would look very different without heroes like Kiniry and Appel – takes time to remember what they and their fellow Soldiers did 75 years ago.
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