WASHINGTON — John Reep almost missed out on his chance to serve. On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was turned away at his local Marine Corps recruiting station in Chicago.
|Veteran John Reep discusses his Army service from 1943 to 1952 during a Sept. 11, 2010 interview at Alexandria National Cemetery, Va.
DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class William Selby
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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 the hell 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 Washington, 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 Army in 1943. The spot on his lung hadn’t changed, but he had medical records stating clearly that he didn’t have tuberculosis, so he was allowed to serve.
“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 June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion of Normandy. The casualties of the invasion were so high 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.’”
Reep’s 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 assaults and retreats 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,” Reep recalled. “[German forces] came through and said they were traitors in that town.”
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 what appeared to be three American tanks and 17 U.S. soldiers on Dec. 21, 1944. The American soldier, Sgt. Francis Currey, had been suspicious of a ruse and asked a suspect soldier 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 the suspect soldier wasn’t American, Reep said.
“He machine-gunned them all down – the kid was crazy,” Reep recalled. “He had a bazooka and a lot of rounds, and he took out the three tanks.”
Currey earned the Medal of Honor that day. The tanks he destroyed were German tanks repainted to look like American tanks, and the soldiers he killed were enemy soldiers who had tried to infiltrate his unit.
Though the fighting eventually landed Reep in a Dutch hospital for a few weeks – the wet cold of northwestern Europe in the winter had given him pneumonia and frostbite – he would continue to fight until he left the Army as a staff sergeant in 1952 and returned home after 10 years of service.
(“Veterans’ Reflections” is a collection of stories of men and women who served their country in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the present-day conflicts. They will be posted throughout November in honor of Veterans Day.)
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