By Ian Graham
Veterans’ Reflections is a collection of stories of men and women who served their country in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Desert Shield and Desert Storm and present-day conflicts. They will be posted throughout November in honor of Veteran’s Day.
John Reep almost missed out on his chance to serve. On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was turned away at his local U.S. Marine Corps recruiting station in Chicago, Ill.
The medical personnel testing new recruits said he had tuberculosis and was ineligible for service, so he went to the Cook County Sanitarium to seek medical assistance.
“I was in there for six weeks before a doctor said, ‘Get … out of there, you ain’t got TB,’” Reep said. It would take years before the cause of his plight would be discovered.
“Finally, when I was living [in the D.C. area] – I had asthma – a doctor asked me if I’d ever been hit in the chest as a kid,” he said. “My old man was drunk, he came home one night wanting to fight, and he hit me in the chest and knocked me out. But what happened is there was a spot on my lung, and apparently it stays with you for life – but I never had tuberculosis. I’d probably have been in Guadalcanal with the Marines.”
After a year of medical checkups, Reep was drafted into the U.S. Army – since the spot on his lung they had seen before hadn’t changed and he had medical records stating quite clearly that he didn’t have tuberculosis, they took him in 1943.
“They asked me if I wanted to join the Air Corps, and I said, ‘No, Infantry,’ and boom, there I was, in the infantry,” Reep said.
His unit, the 30th Infantry Division, “Old Hickory,” was sent to Southampton, England, to supplement infantry forces after the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The casualties of the invasion were so many that his division had to be sent in to replace the troops who were killed on the beach.
“We had three-day passes to Paris,” Reep said. “We got up in the morning and the sergeant says, ‘Hey, where are you going?’ We said, ‘We’re going to Paris,’ and he said ‘Like hell you are, you’re going to Belgium, the Germans broke through.’”
His next steps would take him straight into the Battle of the Bulge. His unit started moving from one city to the other, sifting through the wake of repeated German assault and retreat as they headed toward the Siegfried Line, a series of fortifications on Germany’s western border.
“In [one village] we saw a lot of bodies – women and children. The S.S. came through and said they were traitors in that town,” Reep said.
They also came upon the aftermath of the Malmedy massacre, in which 84 American prisoners of war were murdered by their German captors. Reep said the men had been captured and grouped in a field, where a German truck backed toward them – ostensibly as a transport to take the prisoners into custody. When the canvas was lifted, a machine gun opened fire.
“It was just a slaughter,” he said.
Reep said the most memorable thing about being in Malmedy was the time an American soldier in his unit took out three American tanks and killed 17 American soldiers – or so they thought – on Dec. 21, 1944. The man, Sgt. Francis Currey, had been suspicious and asked one of the suspect troops if he was excited for the Rose Bowl that year.
The man’s response, “No, I’m not interested in flowers,” was enough at the time to tip Currey off that he wasn’t American.
“He machine-gunned them all down – the kid was crazy,” Reep said. “He had a bazooka and a lot of rounds, and he took out the three tanks.”
Though the fighting would eventually land him in a Dutch hospital for a few weeks – the wet cold of Northwest Europe in the winter gave Reep pneumonia and frostbite – he would continue to fight until he returned home and left the Army as a staff sergeant in 1952 after 10 years of service.
He would go on to work in the Pentagon for a total of 20 years before retiring.
“I did it because it was my duty,” he said. “But I enjoyed being in the service. You meet a lot of nice people. There are always a few so-and-so’s, but otherwise I think the service is great, myself. That’s why I’ve been a member of the VFW for 55 years.”