Texas | WWII | Columns


By Carolyn Sumbera Heinsohn

Set in the heart of southern Bohemia’s storybook countryside in the central Šumava region, snuggled in the valley of the Otava River, the town of Sušice was a place of pilgrimage for me during my trip to the Czech Republic in 1998. Why did one little town so far from my ancestors’ villages of origin in northern Moravia and northeastern Bohemia hold such fascination for me? What made me drive “off the beaten path” to seek out this charming gold-mining town founded in 790 A.D., famous for its matchmaking industry, once the biggest in Eastern Europe? It simply was a quest to link to my late father’s past in a place where he walked the streets during the last days of World War II, not realizing at the time that the war would soon end, and that in five months, he would be on his way home to his wife and a daughter he had never seen, except in the small photograph he carried with him through the war-ravaged countries of France, Luxembourg, Germany and Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic, the land of his forefathers.

John G. Sumbera CPL in Army WWII
Cpl. John G. Sumbera
90th Infantry Division

Walking those same streets, looking around the main square bordered by buildings with Baroque and Renaissance facades, I tried to imagine what my father, Cpl. John G. Sumbera, a light machine gunner in the 344th Howitzer Battalion of the 90th Infantry Division in General Patton’s Third Army, thought of this place so far from his home in Fayette County, Texas, where he was born on October 12, 1915, the son of Anton and Andela Fišer (Fisher) Šumbera. Did he feel the same connection to the Czech people as I do; the same fascination with the history and architecture of centuries-old churches, castles and town halls; the same awe when looking across the countryside with meadows as wavy as a green ocean fragrant with wildflowers? Or was his every waking moment filled with the basic instincts of survival, blocking out the aesthetics of his surroundings?

There are so many questions left unanswered, so many memories never revealed. The horrors of the war repressed them forever. The stories were sketchy, bits and pieces offered in few and far-between recollections that were conjured up in quiet moments of reverie. The visit to this place so far away stirred my soul to reach back into the foggy recesses of my mind to try to remember the few “war stories” related to me during my childhood. The gruesome details were hardly ever shared, only the stories of “his escapades while on furlough in Paris with his first cousin” after the city was liberated in August, 1945; or “having to put cardboard inside his boots when the holes got too big”; or “having to eat powdered eggs, sugar and water syrup on unpalatable pancakes and horribly-prepared goat”; and “trading chocolate and cigarettes provided by the military for old jewelry and trinkets”, some of which are still in my possession.

There was also the poignant story about his buddy getting shot as he sidestepped slightly while they were marching in the snow and bitter cold during the worst winter in Europe in 100 years. My father attempted to offer aid, but was ordered to leave his friend by the roadside and to keep marching. This scene haunted him forever, because he felt that he would have been the recipient of the bullet had his friend not stepped right into its path. Had that happened, my father would have been the casualty on the roadside. Instead, he was one of the lucky ones.

Little did my father know what was in store for him when he entered the Army on March 17, 1942. He was assigned to the Texas-Oklahoma 90th Infantry Division, which was previously organized during WWI, and was reorganized on March 25, 1942 at Camp Barkeley in Abilene, Texas. The 90th was known as the “Tough Ombres”, a unit destined to smash the German defenses in Normandy.

Following basic training, my father took part in maneuvers for two months in Louisiana in early 1943, and then returned to Camp Barkeley, where he did additional training in village fighting, attacks on fortified areas, close combat and other subjects required to face a well-trained enemy. While at Camp Barkeley, he married my mother, Minnie Hoelscher, also of Fayette County, on April 11, 1943. Although she was only 18 years old, she bravely traveled alone by bus to Abilene, where they were married in a simple ceremony with no guests, no flowers, no wedding cake, no gifts and no honeymoon. That was typical of many couples during the war. Their love for one another and desire to be married before they were separated far surpassed the need for superfluous extras associated with the weddings of today. My mother lived in a boarding house and only got to see my father on weekends when he was off-duty.

After five short months, my father was sent to engage in desert maneuvers near San Bernardino, California in September, 1943. My mother, who was three months pregnant with me, traveled to California by train, another first-time adventure, in order to be closer to my father for the next three months. That December, orders arrived for the Division to be sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey to prepare for overseas shipment. Mom went home to La Grange, Texas, where she was joyfully reunited with Dad sometime in early January, 1944, when he was sent home on furlough for the last time before being sent to Europe. All the men in the 90th were ordered back from their furloughs by January 23rd, when Brigadier General Jay W. McKelvie assumed command of the Division at Fort Dix.

In early March, the Division was sent to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey for final preparations and then to New York City, where they boarded their ships on March 23rd. With no fanfare or ceremony, they sailed out of New York Harbor destined for England and points east with the Statue of Liberty waving her hand in farewell. The 90th waved farewell in reply and set its course for victory.

I was born on March 14, 1944, nine days before my father left for Europe, to a young mother, who felt very alone, worrying about the well-being of the father of her newborn daughter. My father learned about my birth by telegram and would not see me until I was almost 20 months old. Mail was slow, details were censored, and media reports were sketchy, so my mother had little knowledge of my father’s whereabouts or well-being. She lived in constant fear of the possibility of receiving one of those dreaded telegrams from the War Department advising the family about the loss of a loved one.

The 90th Division arrived in the British Isles in April with the men being stationed around Cardiff and Newport, Wales, where they engaged in intensive training in preparation for the invasion. In addition to their previous training, the 90th learned about mine detection, hedgerow fighting, artillery firing problems, road marches and obstacle courses. The Allied armies in Wales and England waited for D-Day and the signal to attack, which seemed slow in coming. By that time, the 90th had moved to one of the towns on the southern coast of England, either Plymouth or Weymouth. Finally in the early morning hours on June 6th, the signal came.

My father was among the 176,000 American and British men who were heading to five beaches on a 45-mile stretch of the Normandy coast. The numbers not only included the infantry and artillery, but also supply troops, airmen, sailors, engineers, medics and the signal corp.

Part of the 90th Division landed on Utah Beach on D-Day, which fortunately was not quite as treacherous to maneuver as Omaha Beach, which was a wider beach filled with more land mines, barbed wire and other obstacles that hindered the soldiers, many of whom were slaughtered by the Germans as they exited their amphibious vehicles. If they made it to shore, they had difficulty advancing and could not retreat, so were helpless targets. The British landed at the other three beaches.

Leaping out of the amphibious vehicles into hip-deep water with their guns held high overhead, the men raced across the beach stained with the blood of fellow soldiers who had already lost their lives by the barrage of artillery rounds, rifle bullets and mortars that had been relentlessly pounding the sand and surf. They ran for the protection of the seawall 400 yards distant, where they found momentary protection. The beach was constantly being shelled, so further casualties were suffered.

On June 8th, D-Day plus 2, the remainder of the 90th arrived at Utah Beach and began debarkation at noon. My father was in that group, wondering if he would become another casualty, another victim of the deadly crossfire. Over 2500 American men lost their lives on those two beaches. My father was one of the lucky ones.

After reconnaissance parties laid out their plans, and all necessary equipment and supplies were put ashore, the 90th began moving forward at 4 a.m. on the morning of June 10th, beginning its honorable journey for the next eleven months. The Division pushed forward slowly through the hedgerows of Normandy, which made ideal lines of defense for the Germans. It crossed the plains of France into the Rhineland. There were many victories, including Chambois, Operwampach, the Saar and Koenigsmacher. Its men stormed the bulwarks of the Siegfried Line, raced to the shores of the Rhine River, crossed the Moselle and crowned its career with an epic march across the Hessen and Thuringian hills and then moved into the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, cutting the German body in half – dividing Bavaria in the south from the great industrial Germany in the north.

John Sumbera In Germany
Cpl. John G. Sumbera in Germany

Before entering Czechoslovakia, the 90th helped to liberate Flossenberg, one of the most infamous Nazi slave labor camps, located in the Oberpfalz Mountains of Bavaria near the Czechoslovakian border. It was considered a “Hard Regime” concentration camp, because the prisoners had to work in the stone quarries or in a Messerschmidt plant nearby. Established in 1938, the camp was in operation until it was liberated in 1945. Considered one of the seven main concentration camps in Germany, it had at least 55 sub-camps that operated in some capacity throughout the war. The number of inmates fluctuated between 5,000 and 18,000.

Mortality at Flossenburg was high due to overcrowding, poor sanitation, epidemics and severe shortages of food and medicine. In the fourteen months preceding liberation, about 14,000 prisoners died of exhaustion from overwork, malnutrition, harsh treatment and various diseases. As the Allied armies neared the camp, 15,000 inmates were marched away. Those that were unable to keep up with the march were shot. About 1,600 inmates were left at the camp, and most of these were nearing death from typhus, dysentery and starvation when the 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions and the 2nd Cavalry Group, Mechanized, liberated the camp on April 23, 1945. The American soldiers also found the bodies of hundreds of inmates stacked grotesquely like cords of wood waiting for disposal in the cremation ovens.

Re-awakening from my daydreaming mode while gazing around the square in Sušice, I hiked up the red path to the Svatobor lookout tower which gives one a real workout, only to be followed by an exhausting climb up 182 steps to the top of the stone tower. On a clear day, one can see as far away as the Austrian Alps.

What did the countryside look like in early May, 1945, when the 90th Division arrived in the area around Sušice? The troops had just penetrated the heavily wooded Sudeten hills, ousted the Germans in Všeruby and accepted the surrender of the German 11th Panzer Division on May 4th, resulting in 9,050 Germans being taken prisoners; plus 700 trucks and a wealth of guns and material were now in the hands of the Americans.

The roads would have been filled with jeeps, transport trucks, howitzers and soldiers moving northward. There were concrete bunkers tucked into the hillsides, built by the Germans as a defense for the Sudetenland region along the Czech border. There are still a few of these bunkers left – grim reminders of the war that was fought so long ago. There would have been a sense of foreboding, the reality that this was a time of war, a time of uncertainty.

The original plan was for the Division to march to Prague after its patriots sent a desperate call for help to wrest the city from the last remnants of the German army. However, an agreement had been made with Stalin, who wanted the American troops to go no farther than Plzen in southern Bohemia, leaving Prague to be liberated by the Russians. The 90th Division did not get to bask in the glory of liberating Plzen, however, because other American troops had that privilege on May 6, 1945, while the 90th was still en route, slowed down by the spoils of war acquired in Všeruby, and the fact that they had depleted their supply of gasoline.

On the morning of May 7th, a message of historic importance was received from General Eisenhower – the Germans had surrendered, and all forces would cease operations. This ended the combat history of the 90th Infantry Division, a history that began on the beaches of Normandy, proceeding for a thousand miles through the European countryside and ending up on the liberated soil of Czechoslovakia. Victory, however, did not come cheaply. The loss was tragic for the 90th -- 3,871 soldiers paid for peace with their lives, and more than 21,000 were injured. My father was one of the lucky ones. He would be discharged on October 19, 1945 with no injuries, but with memories that he soon wanted to forget.

The arrival of the Americans and the promise of peace aroused a frenzy of jubilation among the Czechs, who were so indebted to them for being liberated. Dances, parties and street festivals were the order of the day. Musicians played and sang through the night to the next dawn, while the girls dressed in their colorful native kroje danced with the soldiers. It was a time of immense relief, a time of carefree celebration.

My father’s lifelong dream was to return to Czechoslovakia, the homeland of his father and ancestors. However, this was not meant to be – his dream faded away with the onset of cancer, which eventually caused his death on July 6, 1981 at the age of 65 years.

As I stood on top of the tower looking down at the town of Sušice and the surrounding countryside, I knew that he was right there by my side. My goal was achieved – our souls had connected again in this faraway place, and all was well.

Carolyn Heinsohn
June 10, 2014 Guest column

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