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John Wack - United States of America

Born in 1922 in Ohio, I joined the US army in 1943 and trained at Fort Belvoir, Virginia as a combat engineer. In 1944, I went to Italy as part of the 39th Combat Engineering Regiment to fight in World War II.

On a beautiful Tuscan morning in September, 1944, I stood looking at Florence in the distance. I was thinking of Florence’s beautiful, historic buildings that I would be soon be visiting. Six combat engineers, including me, climbed into the back of a 6x6 truck headed for Florence. We crossed over the Arno on a Bailey bridge and continued through Florence about five miles until we reached a small creek flowing through a wooded valley. A small bridge had been blown up and our mission was to place a large metal corrugated tube into the creek and cover it over with debris.

My buddy and I were picked to clear the minefield around the blown bridge, an area about 100' x 200'. A dozer and driver had been blown up the day before so our dozer operator, from rural Virginia, was very nervous. He said he needed another 50 feet cleared at one end to provide more dirt to fill around the tube.

So I took the detector and began to clear the area. My buddy from Fredericksburg, Texas was about ten feet behind me. I was extremely careful because the dozer operator had already set off a mine in the dirt he had scraped up to fill in the creek. That meant that we had missed at least one mine during our sweeping. Did we miss any others?

Boom! I flew up in the air and landed on my head. I lay staring at wisps of smoke rising from the bottom of the hole blown in the ground. My first thought was that I was alive and was reasonably all together. Next came the realization that I had lost a leg and the thought that it was probably both legs. But then it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be sweeping for mines anymore, that this was the last sweep I had to make. And to show how the mind seeks out the positive side of things, my next thought was that I would get to fly home and not suffer the violent sea sickness that I had coming to Europe.

While those thoughts were flashing through my mind, the dozer operator ran into the minefield and ripped open my fatigues. He looked down and said, "You are OK." My buddy was thrown backwards and lost a finger but was otherwise fine. They carried me from the minefield and eventually an ambulance carried me to a British field hospital where they cleaned the stumps of my legs and bound them in air-tight bandages. I then went to an American evacuation hospital, a general hospital in Rome, another general hospital in Naples, a hospital in Oran, another in Casablance, a stop in Miami, Florida, and then to England General Hospital in Atlantic City, NJ. I stayed there until my discharge in the fall of 1946.


John taught engineering at Howard University before working for the Naval Ordnance Laboratory where he received several performance awards. He has eight children and eleven grandchildren.

View the next profile: Robert Washburn

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