Recalling heroic past during World War II

Posted: Sunday, November 26, 2000

An Alaska AP Member Exchange

JUNEAU (AP) -- Doug Wahto is a member of what network anchor Tom Brokaw calls ''the greatest generation any society has ever produced.''

But you won't hear Wahto talking up his own virtues. A U.S. Army sergeant and squad leader in the legendary ''Devil's Brigade'' that stormed German machine gun nests on mountainsides, Wahto says he has rarely discussed his World War II experiences with anyone, except for two brothers who also served and his late wife, Doris. And when he agreed to do so this week, his description of three years of harrowing, often hand-to-hand combat was more matter-of-fact than dramatic.

''I'm not a hero, but I think it's your God-given duty to support your country,'' Wahto, 80, said during an interview in the kitchen of his Douglas home. ''Young people were pretty patriotic in those days.''

He'll get some thanks next week. The Army is holding its annual Menton Day Weekend celebration at Fort Lewis in Washington state, and Wahto is finally making the trip. Reunions are ''pretty depressing'' because they remind him of the bloodshed, he said.

Menton, France, was the site of the decommissioning of the 1st Special Service Force, a U.S.-Canadian unit that was highly trained in skiing, parachuting, mountaineering, demolition and amphibious assaults. The unit, renowned for its ferocity and unconventional warfare tactics, was labeled ''The Devil's Brigade'' because of a passage found in a dead German's diary, and was celebrated in a movie starring William Holden.

The unit remains the inspiration for the U.S. Army Special Forces. With about 2,000 members at any given time, it played a key role in the Italian campaign and sustained heavy casualties, with about 750 men killed, wounded or missing in action, according to Bill Story of Virginia, the unit's unofficial historian.

''These guys were incredible,'' said Major Larry Redmon, the group adjutant at Fort Lewis. ''They were rough, tough guys. ... You can't tell by looking at them now.

Wahto, a Juneau native who was a dockworker for the Alaska-Juneau gold mine, enlisted in the Army shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to six months of hard training in Helena, Mont., that included skiing with 45-pound packs and getting up at 5 a.m. daily for a five-mile run.

The handpicked special force initially was deployed in the Aleutians as the Japanese retreated. But most of its fighting was done in Italy, uprooting key German positions on snowbound hills and mountains, firming up the Anzio invasion and leading the way into Rome, there securing bridges over the Tiber River.

On Mount La Difensa on Dec. 3, 1943, the troops made a steep, nighttime approach in a sleet storm and surprised the Germans, Wahto recalled.

''We were running right through them,'' he said. ''We lost a lot of guys, but they lost a lot more.''

The combat was loud, chaotic and relentless, much like the opening D-Day scene from the movie ''Saving Private Ryan,'' Wahto said. Of his emotional state at the time, he said: ''You're always tense. But you have to fight in spite of that. ... I did a lot of praying.''

The assault on Mount Majo a month later was ''the worst fighting of the whole war,'' Wahto said. ''You were just so tired and cold and hungry.''

He was hit by shrapnel and developed blood poisoning and jaundice. The unit took so many casualties that it was disbanded in Menton, with Canadians and Americans going their separate ways. Wahto ended up with his brother Gordon in an airborne unit at the Battle of the Bulge, and was hit by shrapnel again. He was hospitalized in England before leaving the Army in 1945 with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and other medals.

Wahto married the former Doris Balog upon his return to Douglas. ''I was one of the first men home, so I didn't have any competition.''

The war stayed with him, though. For the next few years he had nightmares. His wife would wake him up to tell him he was home.

Wahto was a commercial fisherman for 26 years, served as sergeant-at-arms for legislative sessions for 20 years, did some carpentry and was a safety programs adviser for the Alaska Department of Labor for 15 years, retiring in 1984. He has done volunteer work with the Douglas fire department and the Douglas 4th of July celebration, once serving as grand marshal.

His wife died last year after a long battle with cancer. ''It's still very hard to accept,'' he said softly. He has six children, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, most of whom live in Juneau.

Daughter Janice Kutz of Kingston, Wash., and son Doug of Juneau are accompanying him to the Menton Day Weekend activities, which include a parachute jumping exhibition and a wreath ceremony for fallen members of the 1st Special Service Force.

Asked if he helped to save the world, Wahto said: ''I think it was a do-or-die situation in World War II... I would do the same thing again, even knowing what I do now.''

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