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Hays man thankful for life, liberty

11/28/2013

By RANDY GONZALES

rgonzales@dailynews.net

In front of the Hays home of Carl and Darlene Schlegel, an American flag is painted on the curb.

Seventy years ago in January, Carl Schlegel fought for that flag in the battle of Anzio, one of the fiercest encounters of World War II. Schlegel, an infantryman who fought in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany, was part of a 220-man company that shipped out in 1942.

When the war ended in 1945, he was one of 19 soldiers left.

"I don't know how I got by," Schlegel said.

Schlegel, now 95, said he has much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Not the least of whom is his wife, Darlene, who is 10 years younger.

"I think what I'm thankful for first is Darlene," said Schlegel, who with his wife has two sons, a grandchild and a great-grandchild.

Schlegel said those who give thanks to veterans also should think of their countrymen.

"They need to be thankful for themselves, too," Schlegel said. "We're all American citizens."

One person, in particular, caught Schlegel's eye when he ran into his future wife in their hometown of Otis after the war.

"I went to the drugstore, and there was the best-looking gal I ever saw, behind the counter," Schlegel said. "I asked my cousin, 'Who is that good-looking girl?'

"He said, 'That's Darlene Brack, but you're out of luck; she's taken.' "

Carl knew what he was up against to try to win over Darlene.

"I had some powerful competition," Schlegel said. "He owned a ranch; he owned a brand-new Pontiac; and he owned a big cattle truck; he had a big, fat bank account.

"He was competing with a guy who had 37 dollars and 50 cents."

Schlegel was ready for a battle for his future wife.

"There was one point that was really important in our engagement," he said of a date with Darlene. "I didn't have any car; my brother-in-law and sister had a panel truck, and he delivered milk house-to-house in La Crosse. There was only one seat, for the driver. 'I thought, where am I going to sit her?'

"I found a wooden apple box, and I set it up on the end. I thought, 'I'm either going to get finished tonight, or I'm going to win.' We went out and got in the truck, and she didn't act like anything was wrong."

Now, they've been married 67 years.

It was 72 years ago this month, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Schlegel decided to leave college and enlist.

"A lot of people said I could get a college deferment," Schlegel said. "I said, 'No, I'm not going to do that. My country's been good to me; I owe something back.' "

Schlegel traveled to Hays to enlist after Pearl Harbor, but found out they were swamped with volunteers; he was told to wait for the draft.

Schlegel was drafted into the Army in 1942, where he was in the Third Infantry Division, Seventh Regiment.

Schlegel, part of a heavy weapons company, carried a Browning Automatic Rifle. The BAR was a heavy weapon, and often was carried on a sling; it could fire 440 rounds a minute.

"There were some disadvantages to that thing," Schlegel said. "The recoil was so strong on that, they couldn't stay on the target very long. If they caught you right in the middle, they cut you in two."

After defeating the Germans in North Africa, Schlegel was part of the Allies' invasion of Sicily in 1943. Then came Italy ... and Anzio.

The battle of Anzio, which started in January 1944, ended five months later with the fall of Rome.

"It was tough, because they outnumbered us," Schlegel said. "The Germans were on the mountain range, all around us. You didn't dare move in the daytime -- you would get shot.

"Hitler gave the order to his commanders to drive us back into the sea, and try they did. But we didn't give an inch."

Schlegel lamented the casualties the Allies inflicted at Anzio.

"This is one of the sad parts of the war, to me, even though they were the enemy," he said. "I hated to see all those German boys lose their lives for nothing. They couldn't possibly drive us back."

Schlegel's company then made its way into southern France, and later into Germany. That's where he saw the concentration camp at Dachau.

"Our company commander said we were going to take time to see this," Schlegel said. "Whoever said that didn't happen, I'm here to tell you it did happen. You couldn't believe what human beings were doing to other human beings."

Schlegel also lost close friends during the war, and remembered them when he visited the World War II Memorial in Washington in 2011.

"I thought about my buddies, wished they were there," Schlegel said.

Schlegel, who won a bronze star for his actions during the war, was the oldest veteran in attendance at the Veterans Day ceremony at the Hays VFW earlier this month.

Schlegel said it was gratifying to be honored, but added the ones who fought didn't do it alone.

"At the same time, I still feel the other people did their duty, too," he said. "It wasn't just us."