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Walter Cline Wetzel

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West Virginia Veterans Memorial

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Walter Cline Wetzel
1919-1945

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

John 15:13 KJV

U.S. Army Private First Class Walter Cline Wetzel was born in Cabell County, West Virginia, on June 7, 1919. His parents, Walter Ernest Wetzel and Josephine Kobey Wetzel, also had another son, Harry, and a daughter, Elma. Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Walter Cline Wetzel was known as Junior, although this was an inaccurate nickname because he and his father had different middle names. The Wetzels lived in Huntington, a West Virginia city of more than 50,000 people, throughout the 1920s, with Walter Ernest working for one of the town’s assorted railroad companies: the West Virginia Railroad Company or the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, now known as CSX Transportation.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway had founded Huntington as a western terminus in 1873 on the floodplains and hills of and near the Ohio River. The early 20th century saw an economic boom for the city, supporting extensive new construction, like the landmark Keith-Albee Theater in 1928, and a steady income for the Wetzels. Wetzel may have seen his first concrete image of war when the Veterans Memorial Arch, a structure in Huntington’s Memorial Park dedicated to the casualties and veterans of World War I, was constructed from 1924 to 1929. (Sources: “Huntington, West Virginia,” Wikipedia, accessed 3 April 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huntington,_West_Virginia; “Tri-State History through the Decades,” The Herald Dispatch, 4 January 2009, accessed 18 February 2016, http://www.herald-dispatch.com/news/.)

According to the U.S. 1930 Federal Census, by the time Wetzel was 10 years old, he was living in Wayne, Michigan, near Detroit. With a population of 1,568,662 in 1930, Detroit showed a significant difference from Wetzel’s hometown. The bustling urban center had been the capital of the automobile industry since Henry Ford began the Ford Motor Company in 1903, thus serving as a valuable economic opportunity for both Wetzel and his father. They also benefited from the victories of the American Federation of Labor and United Auto Workers during the 1930s, as Detroit became one of the United States’ most unionized and Democratic cities (Source: Heather Dougherty, Ryan Huddleston, and Neena Yoyakey, “A Brief 20th Century History of Detroit,” Rebuilding Southwest Detroit, University of Michigan, 13 December 2006, accessed 18 February 2016, http://www.umich.edu/~ac213/student_projects06/neerhdo/postwar.html.)
Detroit

Wetzel spent the latter half of his civilian life in the greater Detroit metropolitan area, including downtown Detroit, pictured here. Courtesy Rebuilding Southwest Detroit

airplane tires

Before enlisting, Wetzel worked in a factory mounting tires like the airplane tires shown here. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

Press Releases and Related Records, Compiled 1942-1945 (Records of Headquarters Army Ground Forces, 1916-1956, National Archives) show that when Wetzel was 21, he lived at 28440 Jahns Drive, Roseville, Michigan. He was married to Dorothy Wetzel; they had no children together. In Roseville, he provided for himself and his wife by mounting tires for an auto plant. (Source: James E. Casto, “Undaunted Courage: Two Local War Heroes Who Served Their Nation with Valor,” Huntington Quarterly, accessed 19 February 2016, http://www.huntingtonquarterly.com/articles/issue80/courage.php.) Wetzel was lucky to have a job; as the Great Depression swelled, unemployment among non-agricultural workers in the Detroit area rose to almost 50 percent. As World War II began, however, automobile manufacturers were forced to cease production of commercial cars in favor of vehicles and tanks for the U.S. government and military. The auto industry that dominated the Detroit area was thrust into the preparation of President Roosevelt’s so-called “American Arsenal of Democracy,” with the Chrysler Tank Arsenal plant producing over 25 percent of the nation’s tanks in World War II. (Sources: Detroit Historical Society, “The Great Depression and World War II,” accessed 19 February 2016, Detroit PowerPoints 1929-1945; Chrysler Corporation, Assembly Lines of Defense, Wilding Picture Productions, Inc., 1941, accessed 18 February 2016, https://www.youtube.com/). It was with these endeavors that Wetzel was involved before he enlisted on July 9, 1941.

As the 1940s began, the whole country and every industry turned their attention to the war effort. Military enlistment ranged from 458,365 across all branches in 1940 to 12,209,238 in 1945, and in 1941, Wetzel, with just a seventh-grade education, was one of these many young Americans, including over 300,000 women, to enlist. (Source: The National WWII Museum, “By the Numbers: The U.S. Military,” accessed 18 February 2016, http://www.nationalww2museum.org/). He was assigned to the 13th Infantry Regiment. Private First Class Wetzel became a squad leader in the Anti-Tank Company. (Source: Foundation United Adopters American War Graves, “Walter C. Wetzel,” accessed 14 Feb. 2016, http://www.fieldsofhonor-database.com/.)

The 13th Infantry Regiment, part of the Eighth Infantry Division, was initiated in the late 18th century and served in the American Civil War, where it derived its slogan “First at Vicksburg.” Though later disbanded, it returned in 1940 at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, as war loomed on the horizon. (Source: James E. Casto, “Undaunted Courage: Two Local War Heroes Who Served Their Nation with Valor,” Huntington Quarterly, accessed 19 February 2016, http://www.huntingtonquarterly.com/articles/issue80/courage.php.) The Division trained for battle at Fort Jackson and nearby Poinsette Park until the end of 1941, when it joined large-scale army maneuvers on the coast. From there the 13th Infantry moved to Tennessee until November 1942 and then trained at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for physical conditioning and Camp Laguna, Arizona, before administrative preparation at Camp Forrest, Tennessee, and final arrangements at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.

The 13th Infantry set sail on December 5, 1943, and despite early mechanical troubles arrived in Belfast on December 16. In Northern Ireland they trained extensively until early July, when on the SS Sea Porpoise the infantry journeyed toward battle-ridden France. Landing at Utah Beach, Wetzel’s captain was Alfred E. Brown of the Anti-Tank Company. The 13th Infantry’s first major offensive effort was in mid-July near Vesly, France, south of La Haye du Puits. Afterwards, the infantry saw action in Cerenees, Ducey, and Renne, the latter of which had been the first inland city in the country to be captured.

Insignia of the 13th Infantry

Insignia of the 13th Infantry

At the Battle of Brest in August and September 1944, the 13th and 28th Infantry Regiments infiltrated enemy outposts on the Penfeld River and assumed straight-on offensive positions despite heavy resistance. The two regiments advanced slowly toward the town of Les Coat until relieved by the Second Infantry Division in mid-September. The 13th Infantry moved to clear the Crozon Peninsula, a strategic entrance point to Brest. The German enemy surrendered on September 19. (Source: United States Army, “Eighth Infantry Division: A Combat History by Regiments and Special Units: U.S. Army, 13th Infantry Regiment,” World War Regimental Histories, Book 121, accessed 30 June 2013, http://digicom.bpl.lib.me.us/ww_reg_his/121/.)

Leo Bolick at Wetzel's grave

Leo Bolick, Pfc. Wetzel’s platoon sergeant, visited his friend’s grave many years later in an emotional reunion. Courtesy Tom Bolick

Between the Roer and Rhine Rivers as 1945 opened, the 13th Infantry assisted in the capture of Cologne and the April assault on Siegen. Pfc. Wetzel and his platoon were defending the infantry’s left flank in Birken, a few miles away, when attacked by enemy forces. Although accounts of his death differ, the official Medal of Honor citation states that Wetzel was guarding a house in Birken in the early morning when a German force began an assault. Amidst heavy automatic fire, Wetzel ran to alert his squad, who defended the house with their own automatic weapons while the Germans neared the building. The enemy threw grenades toward the house, and two entered through a window. Wetzel shouted to warn the occupants, and threw himself on top of the grenades to absorb their impact. Mortally wounded, he died soon after, the last man in his platoon to be killed in action. According to the War Department Bureau of Public Relations, Wetzel was first injured by gunfire before he took cover in the house and died three hours after receiving his fatal injuries, but the most notable differentiation comes from Tom Bolick, son of the late Leo Bolick, who served as Wetzel’s platoon sergeant beginning in 1943. According to Bolick, who heard stories of Wetzel from his father, the Medal of Honor citation is incorrect and was written by an absent officer. Instead of manning the house, Wetzel and Bolick were in the streets on patrol when the Germans began firing, and found cover inside the house to fire back. A single grenade was thrown into the house, and Wetzel fell on it, absorbing the explosion. He died after a few minutes of cursing, and gave Bolick the last words “Sarge, I think the goddam son of a bitches have killed me.” (Sources: “Walter C. Wetzel,” Congressional Medal of Honor Society, accessed 14 February 2016, http://www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/3057/wetzel-walter-c.php; James E. Casto, “Undaunted Courage: Two Local War Heroes Who Served Their Nation with Valor,” Huntington Quarterly, accessed 19 February 2016, http://www.huntingtonquarterly.com/articles/issue80/courage.php; Press Releases and Related Records, compiled 1942-1945 [NAID: 1565957, Record Group 337], Records of Headquarters Army Ground Forces, 1916-1956, National Archives at Washington, D.C., http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=3026.)

The 13th Infantry continued towards the Ruhr River and aggressively pushed through the Ruhr Pocket in early April. On May 2, the regiment saw its last action in World War II in Kohlingen, where enemy resistance was weak. May 8, Victory-Europe Day, saw the infantry working in closures and patrols near the Elbe River.

Shortly after his death, Wetzel was awarded a Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, which recognizes members of the United States armed forces killed or wounded in action. He was recommended for and eventually posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest recognition for members of the Army. Established in 1862, the Medal of Honor celebrates self-sacrifice and courage. It was issued February 26, 1946, to his wife Dorothy Wetzel, the citation emphasizing Wetzel’s selflessness and bravery during the raid that cost his life but prevented further injury or death in his platoon. In addition, a Macomb County, Michigan, state park bears his name and houses a memorial plaque. (Sources: Congressional Medal of Honor Society; Casto.)

Walter Wetzel is buried at Margraten, Netherlands, in the Netherlands American Cemetery. Alfons Wetzels adopted three graves in Margraten, all with last name Wetzel. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2015 on the twelfth of January at the age of 86. Born in 1928, he grew up during World War II as a young boy. The war made a significant impression on him, and he was very grateful for the liberation by the Americans in his province of Limburg in the south of the Netherlands. He and his wife visited relatives in the United States, especially Michigan. Since he died, his son, Frank Wetzels, and Gertraud Czekitz decided to continue to adopt the graves as long as possible, in remembrance of their father and for what the allies did in 1945. (Source: E-mail correspondence with Frank Wetzels.)
Wetzel marker

Marker for Pfc. Walter C. Wetzel, Netherlands American Cemetery. Courtesy Frank Wetzels

Prepared by Victoria Roderick, Catherine Walker, and Madeleine Ward, George Washington High School, Advanced Placement U.S. History
May 2016

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Walter Cline Wetzel

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