His story would make an incredible movie.
Listening to World War II Army veteran Leo D. Hymas share the details of his military experience is riveting. The 87-year-old spoke Jan. 22 to members of the PBY Memorial Foundation and their guests. The room was enthralled.
Soft-spoken but steady, Hymas told his story, infusing a good bit of humor in the telling. He spoke of being taken from a small Utah dairy farm where caring for cows consumed all his free time, to surviving battlefields in Europe. He spoke of his transformation from a boy into a soldier, of enduring conditions no one in the military today can imagine. As a teenager, he said, he was aware there was a war going on, but not much more than that.
“I knew there was a mean old man with an ugly moustache who was invading nearby countries,” said Hymas.
Just 15 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he watched young men he knew head off to war.
“They went away and came back on leave with the most beautiful uniforms, especially the Marines, with those red stripes down the sides,” he smiled. “And they got dates with all the pretty girls.”
At 18, he was drafted into the Army. It was a rude awakening for a young man who had hoped for a pretty uniform and a date with a pretty girl.
“We got ugly fatigues and a drill sergeant who was the meanest man I ever met,” he said. “I was homesick. I even missed those old cows.”
Hymas and the rest of his unit, who were preparing to go to the South Pacific, were told to change into winter uniforms and hop on a train. They wound up at Camp Kilmore, N.J. From there, they sailed on the USS Brazil, bound for La Havre, France. They pressed on toward Germany and were among the first American Forces to cross the German border. The ensuing battle was frightening.
“I was never so scared in my life,” Hymas said. “The Germans were using anti-aircraft shells on people. I lost my dear friend Jimmy DeMarco in the first 30 minutes.”
The Americans fought their way across Germany from house to house, village to village. Hymas’ commander was preparing an attack when they saw an enclosure surrounded by barbed wire. Hymas was one of the men ordered to check it out.
“When we got to the fence it was at least 14 feet high, with barbed wire at the top and electric wire with insulators too, so we knew not to touch it,” he said. “There were these ugly little white buildings that looked like barns and a lookout tower, but it appeared to be empty.”
In the direction opposite of the tower, Hymas said there was a large brick structure with a smoke stack.
“And the smell,” he said. “I cannot begin to describe the smell, except that it was human flesh.”
The Americans blew a hole in the fence and entered the compound. They were about to liberate Buchenwald Concentration Camp. He described telling the prisoners to come out, telling them they were free, but they didn’t understand. Finally, the realization that the Americans had come to rescue them began to sink in. But the conditions at the camp and the condition of the prisoners is something that still brings tears to Hymas’ eyes, even after nearly 70 years.
“There were stacks of naked, rotting bodies stacked like cordwood,” he said, choking back tears. “So many were so far gone already we couldn’t save them.”
After liberating Buchenwald, Hymas’ Army unit moved on to Czechoslovakia. In Prague, Hymas said he caught something out of the corner of his eye. He and his partner tracked a German soldier to a nearby building and the two of them ambushed him.
“What we found was a building filled with German SS men, officers, soldiers, all in the process of changing into civilian clothing,” he said.
“We caught ‘em in the very act. One officer told me in perfect English ‘American uniforms are not very pretty.’ I took his arm band and stripped off his medals to show you,” he said, holding them up for the audience to see.
Hymas and his partner captured 91 prisoners that day. He was awarded the Bronze Star.
In all, Hymas served just two years. He received an honorable discharge, went home in a pretty uniform and got a date with a pretty girl to whom he’s been married for 65 years. He now lives on Whidbey Island and said those images of war, particularly of Buchenwald, are forever etched in his mind. But he wouldn’t trade his experiences, either, and shares them regularly with students and adults alike.
“What I did was the hardest thing I ever did, but also the best,” he said.
To learn more about Leo D. Hymas and the Holocaust go to the Washington State Holocaust Education Center at www.wsherc.org.