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Interview with William A. Semlek [5/1/2002]

Nicolyn Williamson:

[Interview begins mid-sentence] ...Williamson and Bill Semlek. We're interviewing Bill. He served in the Army in the 35th infantry. It is the 1st day of May of 2002. Okay. Were you drafted or did you enlist?

William A. Semlek:

I was drafted.

Nicolyn Williamson:

Where were you living at the time?

William A. Semlek:

I was living right out on my dad's place right where I'm living today. Right on the ranch, 20 miles out, northwest of town here.

Nicolyn Williamson:

Do you recall, like, your first days in service?

William A. Semlek:

Do I recall?

Nicolyn Williamson:

Do you remember your first days?

William A. Semlek:

Oh, yes. Oh, yes. You'll never forget those.

Nicolyn Williamson:

What did it feel like?

William A. Semlek:

Well, it was kind of a -- I felt kind of lost really, you know. I had never been away from home for any length of time before that, and, of course, here you are picked up, and you're on your own. You're in a different world. You're amongst strangers. You don't know anybody. It was -- well, it was a kind of a sinking feeling, I guess, I'd have to say. But you soon -- you soon got over that, and things start falling into place.

William A. Semlek:

My training camp, I took my basic training in Camp Walders, Texas. I went down there in February. I was down there for seven weeks of training. It was tough. You know, they -- you get indoctrinated real fast. They -- they put the pressure on you. You are constantly on the move. You are constantly training. You don't have much time for yourself. Discipline.

Nicolyn Williamson:

Do you remember your instructor?

William A. Semlek:

No, I really do not remember those instructors, not the instructors at Camp Walders, I don't remember them at all.

Nicolyn Williamson:

Did you have a family at home or, like, was you married yet?

William A. Semlek:

No, I wasn't married. I was single.

Nicolyn Williamson:

What was your draft number?

William A. Semlek:

37143784. I will never forget it either.

Nicolyn Williamson:

How did you get through basic training?

William A. Semlek:

How did I get through basic training?

Nicolyn Williamson:

Or boot camp. What, like, helped you get through it? What helped you get through it or --

William A. Semlek:

Well, you were -- you were there, and you were serving the purpose. You had to make the most of it or you should have made the most out of it. Because if you didn't, you were constantly getting yourself in trouble. But if you got in there and you made the most of what a 20-year-old kid was used to. But, you know, you made friends. You got close, close friends, very close friends, not so much in boot -- or not so much in basic as what you do after you get -- after I got assigned to a permanent unit. But it was tough. It was strenuous, and that's the way they wanted, but it was discipline. You learned discipline.

Nicolyn Williamson:

What war did you serve in?

William A. Semlek:

What war? World War II.

Nicolyn Williamson:

Where did you go, like, after?

William A. Semlek:

Where did I go? You mean statewide or over there?

Nicolyn Williamson:

Yeah. Where were you stationed or wherever?

William A. Semlek:

Statewide, I started out in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. I was inducted in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. Then I went to Camp Walders, Texas. And from Camp Walders, I was sent to California. I was assigned to the 35th division at that time. I went to California, and we did guard duty. We weren't in any camp. We were living in tents in the first place in a recreation park in Long Beach, California. And we did guard duty. We guarded the beach. We guarded airplane plants. We guarded defense plants, airports, everything that could have been vulnerable. We pulled that kind of duty. Then we did that for about a year. And then when we were shipped -- we went to Camp a short time. From there we went to Camp Butler, North Carolina. From Camp Butler, we went on maneuvers. After maneuvers were over, we went to Camp Rucker, Alabama. We continued training. Every place you went it was training. From Camp Rucker, Alabama, we went to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, which was our point of embarkation. From there we shipped out. They loaded us on a ship, the whole division. We shipped out from there to -- we landed in England. Took about 12 days to go across. Huge convoy. Ships as far as you could see, nothing but ships. Huge convoy, that made it kind of slow. It took us 12 days to go over. Landed in England. Then we went to a little town, Bogman. It was an English military barracks, called the Bogman barracks. And that's -- we trained there -- we was only there about a month. We landed there in June, just before D-Day. No, we landed there in May, late May. We were there about a month. From there we shipped over to France.

Nicolyn Williamson:

Do you remember what it was like arriving in England?

William A. Semlek:

In England everything was slower and smaller and the language. The English language, they spoke it different than we do. I had quite a time understanding them at first. They

Nicolyn Williamson:

What was your job or your assignment?

William A. Semlek:

I was a platoon sergeant.

Nicolyn Williamson:

Did you see combat?

William A. Semlek:

Oh, yes.

Nicolyn Williamson:

Were there many casualties in your unit?

William A. Semlek:

Oh, yes. There was lots of casualties. We went into -- we did not go in on D-Day. We went in 30 days after D-Day, which D-day was June the 6th. We went in about the 7th or 8th of July, we went into France. And there was a beachhead there then already, I don't really know, probably a mile or two, maybe more. Then we organized, got our people together, and I think it was about the 9th of July that we were committed to action.

Nicolyn Williamson:

What were, like, your most memorable experiences?

William A. Semlek:

Well, I guess the one that sticks in my mind -- we had just been in combat just a day or two when -- it was hedgerow country. Northern France was hedgerow country. Hedgerows were -- those farmers used to pick the rocks up out of their field, and they piled the rocks up, oh, four, five, six feet high or more. And over a period of years the dirt built up in there and brush grew on those fences, on those rock fences. And I suppose it was some kind of a -- like our karagane (ph) is, some kind of a brush like that that grew on there. Of course, they made good protection for you from course they were over on the next hedgerow, which is maybe 2- or 3- or 400 yards over, whatever it happened to be. I guess my most memorable incident was -- like I say we were only there in combat for two or three days, and we were hiding behind the hedgerows. The Germans were shelling us with their artillery. And we were scattered out another 20, 30, 40 feet apart. You didn't bunch up. You spread out. If a shell landed, you didn't want a half a dozen people to get killed. Anyway, the kid that was next to me, a shell landed pretty close to him. He was on the far side of me. It blew his legs off. And the poor kid, he said, "Give me a drink of water, and then shoot me." Of course I didn't do it. I got the medics. I don't think he ever survived though. We moved on, and he was in bad shape. He was bleeding bad. I doubt if the medics could have saved him. I think that sticks in my mind, that incident. It was only a day or two after we got committed to battle.

Nicolyn Williamson:

Were you ever a prisoner of war?

William A. Semlek:

Yes.

Nicolyn Williamson:

Can you tell me about your experiences in captivity and when you were freed?

William A. Semlek:

Well, I was captured along with about 20 or 25 other members of my platoon. We were in a little town of Fresnes just on the German border. We were told to take this little town The Germans had pulled out. There was no resistance. We were holding this little town, and we held it for a day, and then we held it for another day, you know. And there was not much going on. We lost contact with our company. Our radio went dead. So we didn't know, you know, what was expected of us. We stayed right there. And we were in a railroad depot right on the edge of town, and the Germans were off about a quarter of a mile in a heavily wooded area. There was a clearing there between us and the Germans. We were in this little town in this railroad depot. And they brought a tank out there one day and just shot -- blowed that depot all to pieces. We heard the tank coming so we got down in the basement of the depot. But they just blowed that thing all to pieces. Next day -- we stayed there that night, that day and that next night. And the next day they sent a patrol, about 12 men, come right up the road in broad daylight, and we saw them coming so we just waited for them until they got within range. So myself and a couple other three of the guys go out there to meet them, go out there behind some bushes, and we waited for them. We annihilated all of them but one, took one prisoner. The rest of them got shot. We took him prisoner. We in the depot there. We started back across this town to -- we didn't know what we were supposed to do. We were out of food. We were out of ammunition. We started back across this little town one morning. The town was full of Germans. They opened up on us. I got -- I and along about two or three other got wounded. I got hit in the leg. They hit me three times in the leg. Must have been -- it was either a machine gun or they had what they called automatic pistols. They were about a 30 caliber. They hit me three times before I fell down. But I got wounded, and there was one or two other kids got wounded. They took us prisoners. There was one poor little kid that he was shot in the stomach. The German soldier told him to get up. He was down on the ground. He told him to get up, and he couldn't. So he just pulled his pistol out and put a bullet in his head. But from there -- I could get up. I could walk after a fashion. I could jump around on one leg. They took me and the rest of the prisoners, and moved us back to another little town. The towns are pretty close together over there. They are not like ours. They moved us back to this other little town. I don't know what they did with the ones that were somewhere else with them. Where I was wounded, along with two or three others, they loaded us into a truck, and they took us to a railroad station and put us on the train. It was a German hospital train. We went up through Apeldoorn, Holland. And I was there in a German military hospital, of all things, for just a couple of days. It wasn't that bad. They had nurses taking care of us and that type of thing. But that only lasted a couple of days, and they shipped me out of there to my first prisoner of war camp, which was an English camp. They put me in with a bunch of English people. And that's -- from that time on, we got no medical attention, nothing. To this day, I pack the -- one bullet in my leg. It drove into the bone just like into a piece of cheese, and it never broke my leg. I don't know how that is possible, but it drove into my leg bone, and two of the bullets exploded. And the fragments, they were in my leg. And some of them finally came out to the surface, you know, and I had to have them cut out. But I pack most of that stuff with me today. That was the initial prisoner of war happening. From there they sent me -- they took me out of that British camp. That was stall logs. That was what they call stall logs. They were prisoner of war camps. There was 11-B. They sent me to Some of the camps -- one of the camps, we had barracks, old German military barracks. They weren't being used by the German military, but they were -- windows were broke out of them and all. They were brick buildings. It was in the wintertime. It was December and January in their cold weather. But there was enough people in there to get where you kind of stayed warm. You had a blanket. You had your clothes, and you had one blanket to sleep under. Then they moved us to the second camp. They moved us by train. They loaded us into boxcars. You may have heard, they called 40 and 10, 40 men or 10 animals. They were small boxcars. They weren't big like the boxcars in our country. They were small boxcars, and they lock the doors. And I guess the most worrisome part of that trip was they left us overnight in the railroad yards in Berlin. And, you know, the English were bombing those towns at night and the Americans were bombing them during the day. Luckily, we never got -- you know, we never got hit. They never bombed Berlin that night. And we survived that. The next morning we took off with the train and took us to our new camp. There we lived in tents, 400 men to a tent. There was about 12 of those tents in that compound. And that was the -- that was the camp that we got liberated from. The Russians liberated us. The Russians came in there with tanks morning. And they ran the fences down and turned us loose. It was about two weeks after that before we -- before the Americans got trucks in there, you know, hauled us out of there. But in a nutshell, that's -- that's what happened. As far as food, they fed you once a day. You got a potato, a boiled potato, about that big. You got a piece of dark bread, about -- a slice about that thick and probably a piece of margarine, kind of like you get in the restaurants, you know those little cubes. We got one of those. On a rare occasion, you'd get a little piece of sausage, about that big. That was your meal for the day. You were just about as hungry after you ate it as you were when you started eating it. You could survive on it. You could stay alive. Towards the end of the war, we did get some -- the Red Cross partials, American Red Cross partials. Usually the common practice was two men to a package. You split a package. Oh, there was chocolate bars and there was soybean crackers and there were coffee and, oh, there was some canned powdered milk and vitamin E tablets and stuff like that in them. Kept you going. The living conditions were not good. There were -- you know, you had no place to clean up, take a shower. On rare occasions, they'd take you to what they call the bath house. They take you out there, and you could take a shower. We had body lice. They did sterilize -- when we took a shower, they'd take our clothes and run it through some kind of a heat treatment, I don't know, probably like an oven or something. I suppose that would destroy the lice, that type of thing.

Nicolyn Williamson:

After you were freed, then where did you go?

William A. Semlek:

After we were freed, we stayed there in that camp about two weeks before the Americans got trucks brought in there. And we went -- I don't remember the name of the town that we assembled in. They flew us to -- they put on us planes, and they flew us to LeHavre in France, what they called their Camp Lucky Strike. That is where they gathered all the prisoners of war. And I guess I was in that Camp Lucky Strike for -- (The interview was interrupted because of a page on the intercom.)

William A. Semlek:

I got cleaned up and got new clothes, and they fed us four times a day royally. And eventually we loaded on a ship and headed back across the ocean.

Nicolyn Williamson:

So, like, after you were freed, you weren't in combat anymore?

William A. Semlek:

After, no. Once -- no, I never went back to combat after I got out of prisoner of war camp. I went -- they sent me from -- I came back to Camp Carson, Colorado, and they gave me 60 days leave. training recruits. And I disliked that with a passion. I just couldn't get into the rhythm there of training recruits after I had been over there and you saw it all. So when I got enough -- enough points. They were on a point system. After you got so many points -- you got so many points for being overseas and you got so many points for longevity and so on and so on. When I got enough points, I got out. I couldn't get out of there quick enough. It just didn't -- it didn't go over very good to me anyway to go back and start training recruits. It wouldn't -- didn't do anything for me. I didn't like it.

Nicolyn Williamson:

Were you awarded, like, any medals or citations?

William A. Semlek:

The only medals that I received were the combat infantryman's badge and of course the purple heart for being wounded. And that was it, I believe.

Unidentified Male:

Did you stay in touch with your family when you was gone?

William A. Semlek:

Did I what?

Nicolyn Williamson:

How did you stay in touch with, like, your parents?

William A. Semlek:

Well, up until I got captured, we got letters on occasion. We got mail. But after I was captured, there was no correspondence. We never got any. There was a letter that my sister mailed to me kind of fragile. She was going to Vancouver, Washington at the time, and she sent me that letter, but it never got to me. I guess they moved us or something in the meantime. The only information that we got was -- they had what they call "confidence men." They'd take a certain individual in the camp, and he would have a few more liberties than anybody else. He would be able to go outside of the camp, and he would come back with information how the war was going. We didn't have radios. They wouldn't -- no radios. No newspapers. You had no information of what was going on.

Nicolyn Williamson:

Did you guys have plenty of supplies before you were taken prisoner?

William A. Semlek:

Before, yes. We would have -- we had to -- I was with Patton's outfit, and he was rearing to go all the time, that man was. They'd have to stop and hold him up until our supplies could catch up with him. Then away we'd go again. But there wasn't any shortage of supplies or ammunition or food or that type of thing that I have any knowledge of.

Unidentified Male:

Do you have any photographs of, like -- did you have a camera?

William A. Semlek:

I had a camera with me. When I got captured, of course that went by the wayside. I never got any pictures. Everything was lost. Didn't get anything.

Nicolyn Williamson:

Did you keep personal diaries or anything? regret that I didn't. I wished I would have. Because I'm sure there is some of the stuff that after 50 years, it gets away from you.

Nicolyn Williamson:

Do you remember the day when your service was over? Do you remember that day?

William A. Semlek:

Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I remember it. In Camp Roberts, California. Got out of the service, and I hitchhiked to Washington state. My sister was living up there. Yes, I remember it.

Nicolyn Williamson:

You were just happy to be home and --

William A. Semlek:

Well, I didn't come home right away. I stayed out in California for -- I went down to Los Angeles. I got a job there. I worked with Southern Pacific Railroad. And then later I worked for Sata (ph) Rail Company. I was there probably three years. Met my wife there. That was in about -- after about three years, I came back to Wyoming.

Unidentified Male:

When you went to work, was that supported by the G.I. bill?

William A. Semlek:

No. Well, wait. I will have to take that back. Yes. They provided a school, right here in Motocrost (ph) for kind of a refresher course for us. There was probably 12 or 15 of us. They paid, I remember that. And a refresher course in the line of work that you did before you went in the service. (The interview was interrupted because of a page on the intercom.)

Nicolyn Williamson:

You joined a veterans club when you got out?

William A. Semlek:

Yes. I'm one of the charter members of this veterans post down here that is still going today. There is two others that are still -- that I know of, that are still living beside myself that are charter members of that veterans foreign wars post. Richard Bray, you know him. He's outside there. He was one of them. Of course, he dropped his membership. He hasn't been a member for years. There is a fellow in Sheridan that was a charter member of this post.

Nicolyn Williamson:

Is there anything that you'd like to add to our interview, something you want to talk about

William A. Semlek:

Oh, my goodness.

Nicolyn Williamson:

Looks like we have a long list in there. (The interview was interrupted by an individual entering the room and then leaving.)

William A. Semlek:

I guess it was an experience that you'll never forget. You made friends with those people that you lived with all this time. They were just close, close friends. It was the real buddy system. You looked out for one another when you was over there. having in this day and age with drugs and alcohol and this type of thing, I think military -- the time that I spent in the military, you were rigidly disciplined. And those things never entered your mind. If there was some way that some of these young people could get in on some of that type of discipline, we wouldn't be in as much trouble as what this country is in now for drugs and alcohol use.

Nicolyn Williamson:

What were your feelings about the war, kind of?

William A. Semlek:

Pardon?

Nicolyn Williamson:

What were your feelings about the war before you were drafted?

Unidentified Male:

Was you going to sign up?

William A. Semlek:

They had me before I had a chance to sign up. I went in and -- well, Pearl Harbor was in December, and in February I was gone. They got me in a hurry. I had already registered for the draft. What was your question?

Nicolyn Williamson:

Oh, what were your thoughts about the war? How were your feelings towards the war?

William A. Semlek:

Oh, I had no problem with that. I think it was a just cause. If you just look back and see what might have happened, where the world would be today if Hitler and/or Stalin I served, and I served proudly because it was a just war.

 
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