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Interview on experiences in World War II

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Ben Henning and Casey Pridey are interviewing world war II veteran Bill Sorensen


Interview of William B. Sorensen, World War II Veteran



Interview conducted by Ness City High School Audio-Video Technology Class students Ben Henning and Casey Pridey on November 15, 2006. Adult supervisor Clara Marie Felts

BH: Could you please state your full name?

BS: William B. Sorenson.

BH: Your date of birth?

BS: December the 7th 1925

BH: And where were you born?

BS: Fall River, Kansas

BH: Your parents' names? Your parents' names?

BS: My parents was Edward and Henrietta Meyer-Sorensen.

BH: Did you have any brothers and sisters?

BS: I had one brother Edward Jr. and a sister Grace.

BH: Did you attend High School?

BS: Did I what?

BH: Attend High School? Did you attend High School?

BS: Oh yes I attended High School at Buhler Rural High School in Reno County, Kansas.

BH: And what year did you graduate?

BS: From high school I graduated in 1943.

BH: What was your job prior to your military experience?

BS: I went into the military shortly after I graduated from High School.

BH: Do you remember the announcement of Pearl Harbor?

BS: Do I remember what?

BH: The announcement of Pearl Harbor?

BS: Yes. Pearl Harbor occurred on my birthday.

BH: Oh really.

BS: And uh that was on December the 7th and I didn't know about it because we didn't have any radio, or T.V. or anything like that at that time. I heard about it on the bus going to high school on December the 8th. And I recall the President. . . they put us on the PA system in the High School. . . and I recall President Roosevelt saying he declared a state of war with Japan.

BH: How did you think that was going to affect your life?

BS: My first thought was that I wanted to be a part of it. Not because I wanted to save the world or anything but because I wanted the adventure. I was a young person 16 years old and I wanted the adventure and I thought the war would be over before I had a chance to get in it. That was my thoughts.

BH: Were you enlisted or were you drafted?

BS: Well this is part of my military history that is kind of a secret. I wanted in so bad after I had graduated from High School that I went to the local draft board and told them on July the 15th in 1943, I told them I was 18 years old. And it was going to be six months before I was 18. And without going into a lot of details I finally convinced them that I was 18 and so I was drafted. My mother threatened to tell them the truth but I begged her not too. So to this day all of my military records show that I was born on July 15, 1925 when that is not accurate.

BH: When you were drafted did you get to choose your branch of service?

BS: Yeah when I was taken to Fort Leavenworth, and they gave us IQ tests and different tests and they told me that I had done well enough on my tests that I could go to the Air Corp if I wanted to. But I'd have had to produce a birth certificate. I was afraid that they would find out my true birth, so I declined and they asked me what I wanted to do and I said that I wanted to go to the infantry. And they said you won't have any trouble getting there. One of the reasons I wanted that was because my dad was in World War I and he was a Lieutenant in the infantry and I had always admired that. Occasionally when I was young I would put on his uniform just to see how it felt.

BH: Would you please describe the process of joining the service?

BS: Well I think I just told you, we got up there and they said that we could go home for two weeks to close our affairs at home and I raised up my hand and said I didn't want to go back home I wanted to go right in. And I was the only one out of a whole group that was drafted immediately and they swore me in the army on that same day which was the 28th of August, 1943.

BH: Were there any other people from your area that joined with you?

BS: Yeah but I didn't know them. I mean they were. . . I left from Hutchinson and they were from different communities and I didn't know anybody that I was with.

BH: Were any of your brothers or sisters or relatives involved in the war?

BS: Not in World War II. My brother and sister are both younger than I am. My brother later went to the army but World War II had concluded by the time he was drafted.

BH: Could you tell us about your basic training?

BS: I took my basic training at Fort Gruber. No not Fort Gruber. Camp Gruber, Oklahoma and I forget exactly how long it took. Three months or something like that. And they lined us all up. All they had there was a Calvary, what they called the Calvary that was the platoon leaders on up. And so they took the tallest guy that was there and they made him a squad leader. And the shortest guy they made assistant squad leader. Since I was tall I was a squad leader. So all during the time that I took basic training I was an acting squad leader. And during that period of time they came to see me and said that I did well enough on various things that they wanted me either to go to Officers Candidate School or the Air Corp.

I decided to take a chance on my birthday inconsistencies and so I joined. Then I went to Tulsa, Oklahoma and joined the Air Corp and was sent to Sheppard Field, Texas. And while I was there they concluded, the Army concluded, that they had enough people in the Air Corp. I qualified for bombardier and navigator or pilot. The only restriction I had was that I was too tall to be a fighter pilot so I'd have to be a bomber pilot. And anybody that hadn't. . . they concluded, that anybody that hadn't reached preflight, that was a degree of training, that they would send back to the old unit that they had been before. So I hadn't reached preflight. I had just been to Sheppard field and waiting to go to college, what it amounted to. In fact they had set me up to go to Morningside College in Iowa. You had to have a year of college before you could start flight training. So they sent me back to the infantry then to Hunter Ligget Military Reservation in California. From there I was. . . they were on maneuvers there, and there I was transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia. I went a lot of places, fast. Went to Fort Benning, Georgia and while I was there they needed some volunteers for overseas service that wasn't in a unit and I volunteered. They sent me to Camp Henderson, Indiana, and from there to New York and from there overseas and I joined the 75th division infantry division in England, and then we went to France. We were committed to battle on the 25th of December, Christmas day 1944. A lot happened between then but that's the jest of what occurred.

So then when we were committed to battle I always thought I was on a great adventure. I would watch John Wayne films and he always was in these battles in the movies and he always survived and I thought there was no question about the fact that I would survive too. And so on Christmas day there was some Germans on a hill which was in Belgium. Our unit was assigned to get them off the hill. So we charged up the hill. I still thought I was John Wayne. I got about half way up the hill and of course there was artillery going off and everything and about oh two or three hundred yards away from me to the left up the hill a little bit an artillery shell made a direct hit on a guy and it threw him in the air about 20 feet. And I stopped in my tracks and that was the first time that I realized this was not an adventuresome thing. It was for real. I was 19 years old at the time and it still was an adventure but from that point on it was a pretty serious adventure.

BH: What unit did you serve with?

BS: What unit? Seventy-fifth Division, 290th Infantry Regiment, Company I. We were in the Battle of The Ardennes. It was during the time of the breakthrough. But I wasn't involved in the breakthrough that was around Bastogne. But I was involved in the Battle of The Ardennes. A lot of things happened of course you can ask me about those but I wound up getting the purple heart and the reason that I did, I got the Bronze Star too, and I am not exactly sure why. I got the Purple Heart and I was with my squad. We were going up a hill and there was a clearing of about oh two hundred yards or something like that. And one by one we were running up the hill to get from one grove of trees to another grove of trees for protection because there was all kinds of shooting going on all over and you didn't know where it was coming from. They waited. . . I was about half way through, there was squads of twelve men. And I got about half way up the hill and all of a sudden machine gun fire started shooting at me and bullets hit in front of me. I can still see them hitting. There was a little bit of a skifs of snow. So I immediately fell down and one of the bullets hit the end of my glove and burned my finger and I layed there trying to figure out what to do. Whether to get up and try to run up the hill to the other side because I was about half way between or go back. And I finally decided that going back was the best way to go because it was a little bit down hill. So I. . . we wore our gas masks at the time. In World War II everybody was afraid of a gas attack by the Germans. So as I got up I lost my gas mask. It's still laying in the field there as far as I know. I'm sure it's not but that is where I left it. And I ran back to the other way. And immediately I got up and they started shooting at me again and I have no idea where those bullets went. It didn't hit me. I always figured the reason they waited until I went across the field before they started shooting, and I don't know how far away they were, was because I was a big target. I don't know whether that's right or not.

So we went around, the rest of us went around that area. As we got on a little country road the artillery started again. The Germans had what they called 88 mortars and they started shelling us on the road. There were a bunch of us on the road. In Belgium they had, it was mainly a Catholic country, and they had little prayer shelters I suppose you'd call them by the side of the road, where people could go pray going down the road. They are kind of like picnic shelters. And a bunch of my friends decided to go into one of these shelters for protection when they were shelling us with the artillery, the Germans were, and we had no idea where it was coming from. And I elected to get in the road ditch. And so I laid in the road ditch and I remember praying that I wouldn't get hit or if I did it wouldn't be too bad. And they told me later it was the last shell that came in that hit in the middle of the road and I was in the ditch about 10, 15 feet from it. The mortar shells when they hit, they're a cone shaped. They come down and they go up and come down like that and it hit me all over. It broke my foot, it lodged and went through my pack and lodged in my back. It went across my, it went through my canteen. It creased my helmet, cut my finger again on one of my other hands. And the first thing that they teach you is that if your wounded. . . I realized, I don't know how long . . . the concussion knocked me out. I don't know how long I was out probably a minute or two but I don't know. So I immediately try to take sulfur, because they teach you that you need to take sulfur when you are wounded. So I tried to take sulfur. I took my canteen out of my side. I got my sulfur first and took it got my canteen out and all my canteen was just rattle, rattle, rattle because the shrapnel had gone through it and there was no water. Just the shrapnel inside the deal. Later in life that caused kidney stones. The doctors think that. I had to have an operation to remove kidney stones, but that was several years later when I was out of the army. That's when I got the Purple Heart.

BH: Out of the time that you served over seas, how much of it was under heavy combat?

BS: Very little. We were committed to battle on the 25th of December, and I was wounded on January the 5th so about ten days is all I was in battle. By the time I was wounded, of our company I was probably only one of. . . oh there was about 200 men in a company and probably I was only one of about 20 men that was left. The rest of them had either been wounded or killed. It was that wild.

BH: Can you tell us about your living conditions?

BS: My what?

BH: Your living conditions?

BS: Living conditions? Well we mostly ate K-rations and slept in fox holes. Dug fox holes. I remember one time they said we're gonna be here for a while dig in. So we dug in. Oh I made the most beautiful fox hole with my friend. It was a two man fox hole. Had shelves in it and it had a little bit of a roof over part of it. It was winter time. You gotta remember it was winter time. And we no more than got that fox hole fixed up just like a perfect living place and they said we're moving out. So we dug several fox holes sometimes in rock.

I'll tell you a good story that's not as serious as some of the more violent part of it. But anytime anybody was separated from their unit we had passwords. So that if you were lost and ran into somebody that they would say the password and you had to answer the other part of it or they knew you were enemy. So you had to know the right password. So they changed them every few days and every once and a while the Germans would learn what our passwords were. So they usually picked passwords that were difficult for Germans to say. And I don't know whether you know it or not, but the German people that speak the German language have trouble saying J's and W's. They don't say jump they say yump. They don't say whiskers they say viskers. So this particular day the password was long whiskers. So what happens is the person that challenges you says long and if you answer whiskers then you are a friend and you can come on in. If you say viskers then you know you got a German probably see. And if you don't know it at all you are in more trouble. Well I was on this patrol with about six other guys and it was in the Ardennes forest and it was dark, cloudy, couldn't see anything. And some how or another coming back to where our lines were . . . we had lines where beyond was Germans and we were that way. Coming back I got separated from my patrol. And I was lost and I was scared. I was scared a lot of the time that I was over there. I accidentally ran into our lines and it was an accident because I didn't know where I was at. And this guy on the other side said long. And there was no way I could think of whiskers. I was so scared I forgot the password. And he said you. . . and I said I don't know the password. And he says you either tell me the password or I am going to shoot you. And of course I immediately started talking about everything I could about the United States and about home and everything. Trying to convince him that he wasn't supposed to shoot me. Finally he said well I. . . he was one of the men of our outfit. He said I recognize your voice come on in. I came on in to where his voice came from. He told me, he said, ``You shouldn't have forgotten the password.'' He said, ``I almost shot you.'' And he said, ``I'm going to tell you the password,'' and he said, ``I don't want you to ever forget it.'' He said, It's whiskers.'' Well it has been sixty some years later and I still remember it. That was just a little story that happened but it is kind of amusing but at the moment at the time it wasn't, it was pretty serious.

BH: Was your unit well supplied?

BS: Was it well supplied?

BH: Did you have plenty of food and ammunition?

BS: Yeah. Well not always. One time we ran out of ammunitions and we ran into some tankers, people that had tanks, and they had extra ammunition and they shared some with us. We used 30-06 and our M1 riffles. So there were times we were a little short and we ran across, oh I suppose there were 200 or 300 dead bodies of Americans that the Germans had killed, because they did run out of ammunition. So it occurred but not too often. Other than that one incident when the tankers shared their ammunition with us we didn't run out. So like I said earlier we had K-rations and the tankers had what they called 12 in 1. They had packets of food where 12 people ate out of 1 packet and they shared those with us occasionally. And that was like having Thanksgiving dinner practically because we were tired of C rations. We always wanted something we didn't have. I mean they gave us cigarettes. We used to have little packs of cigarettes that they would give us. Of course, I smoked them. I don't now. I quit 40 years ago but I did then. And they would give us little pieces of candy and of course you just. . .anything you can't have you crave. And that's the way the military was at that time you know. Anything that we didn't have enough of or that was good you wanted. That's human nature. But generally speaking we were well supplied we had plenty of coats. One time we were going into a battle and they made us throw our over shoes away. We had over shoes in case it snowed. Of course it snowed and we didn't have over shoes and all kinds of people froze their feet. There were a lot of cases of frozen toes. Because what happened was your feet would get wet and when you took your shoes off then they would freeze. Anybody that left their shoes on had insulation and didn't freeze. And I never took my shoes off and I never lost any toes or was frost bitten or anything. But a lot of people lost toes or portions of them because they took their shoes off at night when they were in the fox holes and froze. It was cold.

BH: How was your relationship with your commanding officers?

BS: Well I would say alright. Every once in a while during training we had some officers and some of the guys would threaten and say well wait until we get into battle and were gonna shoot you. But that's the way they felt about them. I never felt that way and all of the officers we had. . . and I was a Private First Class. That's what I was. But all of the officers we had I thought were good men. And the thing of it is a lot of officers took a lot of casualties because they exposed themselves, I thought at the time even, unwisely so. Because they were trying to help the rest of us decide what to do or where to go and they exposed themselves. We had a lot of casualties with our officers because of that kind of conduct, but I thought the officers did good.

BH: Were you able to stay in contact with home?

BS: With who?

BH: With home.

BS: Yeah. We had what we called v-mail. Not e-mail, v-mail. And we would write letters and then the officers would look it over to see if there was anything in it that. . . they'd censor it. To see if there was anything in it that would give away our position or anything. And they would cross those things out black them out. But I wrote letters home all the time. And then we had mail call and I suppose I would get letters pretty regularly from home. I knew what was going on.

BH: Did you have anytime for recreation?

BS: Not really. You mean, well you mean during the time that we were in combat or outside of that?

BH: Outside of it and in it.

BS: Well yeah. During the time I was in the army, I was in the army two years. I got discharged with a medical discharge because of my wounds on the 25th of August of 1945. Of course a lot of that time we were in different camps or forts and different places. In England I had several days off, went to London, Piccadilly Square and all of those places. So yeah we had time off at different times. Now the time that we were in combat was a pretty compressed, but like I said it wasn't for a very long period of time. But I think we got to Europe, on the continent probably about oh it was November. But we were over there for about a month before they committed us to battle. But we had times when we would site see. Didn't have any time to go out with girls or anything like that. None of the girls would ever go with me anyway.

BH: Do you remember what your service pay was?

BS: My service pay? Fifty dollars a month to start with and I think by the time they, by the time I got out it was probably 60 or 70. I don't remember exactly.

BH: Do you remember where you were when the announcement for the end of the war came?

BS: When the end of the war came yeah. Well prior to that I didn't know too much about politics or anything at that time. But President Roosevelt died prior to the end of the war and I remember I was at. . . I think I was back in the United States then. I am pretty sure I was. And I know a lot of the men were wailing practically that we'd lost our president. But it never effected me that way I figured well you know he was just a man like the rest of us. There'd be somebody else to take his place. I wasn't that sad. Not because he was Democrat or Republican or anything. I just uh it didn't affect me that way. But first we had VE-Day which was the victory over Europe. I don't particularly remember where I was then. But I remember VJ-day which was in August. It in the early part of August of 1945 and that's when we dropped the atomic bomb on Japan that ended the war or a few days later it ended the war. I was always afraid. I was at camp Adaberry Indiana, then in a rehabilitation hospital before I was getting discharged. I remember thinking that I was going to be well because my broken foot was healing well. That I would be returned to the military to a unit and I would hit the beaches of Japan. That's what all of us thought at that time. That we would have to attack Japan to win the war. So I, I figured if I had to hit the beaches of Japan. Which was a possibility in my mind at that time. That the chance of survival would be very would be remote because we had been through Iwo Jima and all that, and the Japanese were tenacious when it comes to resisting a charge like that. But the reason I remember VJ-day was a great weight was lifted off of me because the war was over. Finally, both Europe and Japan. And we wouldn't have to hit the beaches of Japan. And so I remember the elation of it and of course it wasn't too long after that, that I was discharged. Probably three weeks after VJ-Day.

BH: Do you remember the date of your discharge?

BS: Yeah it was August 25th of 1945. What I particularly remember about that. Any military person got a free bus ride in Indiana. And they discharged me and I was so proud of being discharged. We were all in a room together and they presented us with our discharge papers. And they gave us a little button that we called the ruptured duck. It was a little pin that indicated you had served but now you were out. That's what everybody called it at the time, the ruptured duck. That's what common terminology was at the time. Well anyway I was so proud of being discharged that I put it on, and I went to get on the bus at Camp Adaberry to go to Indianapolis to try to get a bus to go home. And that guy, the bus driver said thirty-five cents or whatever it was, the bus fare was. I said. ``I'm military.'' He looked at my ruptured duck and he said, ``Not anymore your not.'' And so I had to pay the fare to get to Indianapolis.

BH: Once you were out of the army how did you get home?

BS: Hitchhiked home. I didn't have much money nobody had too much money. Then I had, I think they gave us a little bit of a bonus or something I don't remember all that. But I decided to hitchhike home. First thing I did was go to a clothing store and buy some civilian clothes. So I hitchhiked home and I got a ride with a guy that had been discharged from the Air Force in Pennsylvania. He had a job as a pilot in Denver. And he was driving all the way from Pennsylvania to Denver and he picked me up. He was constantly going to sleep and I would have to shake him. Try to sing to him and everything to keep him awake. I asked him to let me drive and he wouldn't let me drive. He wanted to drive his own car. I rode most of the way home. . . I think about Salina or something like that and I caught another ride. It used to be during World War II that hitchhiking was a common thing and people were very receptive to picking up people. Especially young people that was on the road. That's all changed now. It's almost a no, no. You don't pick anybody up because you are afraid of the consequences. But at that time it was pretty common.

BH: What did you do after the service?

BS: Well I looked for a job. I was in Hutchinson. I looked for a job and I couldn't find a job that I wanted anyway. I was in the pool hall. Talked to one of my friends and he said, ``Well why don't you go to college.'' Well I never really thought I was smart enough to go to college. I wasn't the best student in high school, I didn't apply myself too well. So he finally talked me into going to college. So I enrolled at Hutchinson Junior College. In a couple years I graduated and I thought, that would be the end of it and I went out to Oregon and worked a while in the lumber mills. I came back and met my wife again. I'd met her in Junior College. And she talked me into going to Kansas State College. So I went to Kansas State College and graduated in 1951, then came to Ness City.

BH: What was your degree in?

BS: My degree was in Agronomy Agriculture. That's an interesting story about. . . this doesn't have anything to do with World War II but I knew I was interested in farming. But when they asked me what I wanted to major in in college I said agriculture and they said what kind of agriculture? And I said I didn't know there were a lot of different kinds. And then oh they started down the list. There was agronomy, there was horticulture, there was dairy, there was about twenty or thirty different phases of agriculture. I knew I didn't want to major in dairying, because I didn't like to milk, and we milked when I was home and I didn't like that. We could never leave anywhere we had to be there night and morning to milk. So they finally got to agronomy. That was the first one really that was on the list and I went back to that. Crops I liked crops, so that's what I majored in.

BH: Did you form any close friendships in the military?

BS: Not really. I suppose about ten years ago I had a letter from a guy in Nebraska that I had served with and we corresponded for a while, but I don't know what happened to him whether he passed away or what. We don't correspond anymore. But I wouldn't say that I formed in the military any lasting relationship. Simply because I was never ever in one place for very long. As I explained to you earlier. Going to all these camps and forts that I were. I wasn't any place very long. And it's pretty hard to establish close relationships when you are constanatly on the move. And we were . . . I was pretty much constantly on the move both before I went overseas, during overseas, and even back. So no I would say no.

BH: Attended any military reunions?

BS: No. I have had invitations. When I took basic training at Camp Gruber I was part of the 42nd infantry division and they have regular. But here again I wasn't really close enough. I was in. . . all the time I was in I was in four different infantry divisions. I am not really that attached to any part of them.

BH: Are you member of the Veterans Service Organization?

BS: I belong to the VFW, and to the American Legion.

BH: Do you have any other experiences that you would like to share with us?

BS: Oh I have talked an awful long time here. No, there was a lot that happened, a lot of it I am proud of and a lot of it I'm not. I was young. I was inexperience. I'd never been any further than 60 miles away from home when I went to the army. Prior to that time. That was Wichita and we lived at Hutchinson on a farm. So a lot happened. But I can't think of anything special that happened that I want to tell you.

One of the biggest honors that I ever got in the military was receiving the combat infantry badge. And they only gave the combat infantry badge to people that had actually been in combat in the infantry. And at the time that I received it, it is a rifle with a wreath around the rifle. It's as far as I am concerned more important to me than the Bronze Star or the Purple Heart. It indicates just what you had said earlier, that you were face to face with the enemy so to speak. And that is an experience that is pretty serious. And one of the most dreaded things that you could ever hear in the infantry is fix bayonet's. Whenever the Commanders would say fix bayonet's that meant that everybody had to take their bayonet out of there scabbard and put it on the rifle. That meant you were going to be pretty close to what was going to go on. That was scary. And at one time I had to use my bayonet. But it was pretty scary. That is about all I got to say about it.

CF: Well if you don't have anything else that you wish to share with us, why we appreciate your time Bill and sharing this important part of our history with us. Thank you very much

BS: Your welcome.

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