I found a site on land mine survivors and an article on John who served with the 39th Combat Engineers. I phoned the editor and was able to make contact with John and his wife in the summer of 2004.
John was certainly pleased to hear from me and we spoke of days gone by. I asked if he could send me some written history and/or photos, and he laughingly confessed that he hated to write and added that his kids had been begging him for years on end to jot down his memories. After several minutes into the discussion, he exclaimed that I had given him some incentive and that maybe after all these decades he would finally take pen to paper. He said his children would be grateful that I gave him a well-needed push.
But alas, it wasn't meant to be. For it is with deep regret that I inform everyone that in December of 2004, John passed away and sadly my hopes of acquiring more of his history vanished into thin air. Sigh! Not soon enough...
This week I received a wonderful letter from one of John's daughter's, Mary, and needless to say, I am overjoyed to hear from his family. Just goes to show; you never know when something will fall in your lap. I am thrilled to be in touch once again, and even more thrilled to be able to share some photos from the war.
My father, John Wack, was in the 39th Combat Engineers, and his photo and story appear on your site. After his death, I discovered some notes of his that appear to be intended as an autobiography of his time as a combat engineer in Italy (Anzio-Piombino-Florence). I also have some photos from his Italian tour, most with very brief notations.
My goal is to shape these things into a small book for my siblings, who know little of his war experience, and have never seen the photos. Your site might be able to help me identify some of the people in the photos—presumably other engineers—and might help others place their loved ones at a particular spot during the war. I have already benefitted from the history of the 39th that is posted on the site.
Born in 1922 in Ohio, I joined the US army in 1943 and trained at Fort Belvoir, Virginia as a combat engineer. In 1944, I went to Italy as part of the 39th Combat Engineering Regiment to fight in World War II.
On a beautiful Tuscan morning in September, 1944, I stood looking at Florence in the distance. I was thinking of Florence’s beautiful, historic buildings that I would be soon be visiting. Six combat engineers, including me, climbed into the back of a 6x6 truck headed for Florence. We crossed over the Arno on a Bailey bridge and continued through Florence about five miles until we reached a small creek flowing through a wooded valley. A small bridge had been blown up and our mission was to place a large metal corrugated tube into the creek and cover it over with debris.
My buddy and I were picked to clear the minefield around the blown bridge, an area about 100' x 200'. A dozer and driver had been blown up the day before so our dozer operator, from rural Virginia, was very nervous. He said he needed another 50 feet cleared at one end to provide more dirt to fill around the tube.
John (standing) with buddies at a camp around Anzio(?)
So I took the detector and began to clear the area. My buddy from Fredericksburg, Texas was about ten feet behind me. I was extremely careful because the dozer operator had already set off a mine in the dirt he had scraped up to fill in the creek. That meant that we had missed at least one mine during our sweeping. Did we miss any others?
Inscription on back is “Think’n ‘n read’n.” A rare contemplative moment during wartime.
Boom! I flew up in the air and landed on my head. I lay staring at wisps of smoke rising from the bottom of the hole blown in the ground. My first thought was that I was alive and was reasonably all together. Next came the realization that I had lost a leg and the thought that it was probably both legs. But then it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be sweeping for mines anymore, that this was the last sweep I had to make. And to show how the mind seeks out the positive side of things, my next thought was that I would get to fly home and not suffer the violent sea sickness that I had coming to Europe.
Inscription says: “me and platoon doc Aug 1944”
While those thoughts were flashing through my mind, the dozer operator ran into the minefield and ripped open my fatigues. He looked down and said, "You are OK." My buddy was thrown backwards and lost a finger but was otherwise fine. They carried me from the minefield and eventually an ambulance carried me to a British field hospital where they cleaned the stumps of my legs and bound them in air-tight bandages. I then went to an American evacuation hospital, a general hospital in Rome, another general hospital in Naples, a hospital in Oran, another in Casablance, a stop in Miami, Florida, and then to England General Hospital in Atlantic City, NJ. I stayed there until my discharge in the fall of 1946.
John taught engineering at Howard University before working for the Naval Ordnance Laboratory where he received several performance awards. He has eight children and eleven grandchildren.
John Wack; WWII Veteran, Landmine Activist
By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Courtesy of the Washington Post
Saturday, January 15, 2005
John Monroe Wack, 82, a decorated World War II veteran who lost both legs on a minefield in Italy and then became a weapons engineer and activist in the Landmine Survivors Network, died of cancer December 29, 2004, at his home in Bethesda, Maryland.
During World War II, Mr. Wack served in the Army's 39th Combat Engineers Regiment and went ashore in Italy at Anzio. On a picturesque September morning in 1944, Mr. Wack and six combat engineers traveled by jeep through Florence on a mission to place a large metal corrugated tube into a creek where a bridge had been blown up.
Mr. Wack and another engineer were chosen to clear the minefield around the damaged bridge, he recalled in a profile written for the Landmine Survivors Network. One mine already had been set off by the dozer operator as he scraped dirt to fill the creek. With a detector in hand, Mr. Wack carefully began clearing the 100-by-200-foot area.
"Boom! I flew in the air and landed on my head. I lay staring at wisps of smoke rising from the bottom of the hole blown in the ground," Mr. Wack recounted on the LNS Web site. "My first thought was I was alive and reasonably all together. Next came the realization that I lost a leg and the thought that it was probably both legs."
Another thought came, too, as he lay there, he said: "I would get to fly home and not suffer the violent sea sickness that I had coming to Europe."
Mr. Wack eventually was flown to a military hospital in Atlantic City, where he stayed until his discharge in 1946. He was awarded the Purple Heart and other medals.
In 2000, Mr. Wack joined the survivor network in working for passage of the International Landmine Treaty and improving assistance to landmine survivors worldwide. He lobbied Congress and the State Department, spoke to the United Nations in New York and joined an international and intergenerational group of landmine survivors, as well as former Beatle Paul McCartney and Heather Mills McCartney, at a 2002 U.N. landmine conference in Geneva.
In 2003, his landmine experience was featured on the History Channel's "Modern Marvels" program.
Mr. Wack, a native of Troy, Ohio, attended Harvard University before graduating from Catholic University with a bachelor's degree in engineering in 1951. He was elected president of the School of Engineering and Architecture.
He taught mechanical engineering at Howard University from 1951 to 1955 and then joined the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in White Oak. Mr. Wack worked in several departments during his 32-year career at what is now called the Naval Surface Weapons Center and was involved in several nuclear weapons development programs, including the Lulu, Hotpoint, Polaris and Subroc, a solid-rocket-powered underwater-air-underwater missile.
He also served as project manager of Kinetic Energy Weapons and of the ZAP Rocket System. He was chief engineer and later head of the High Energy Laser Division. In 1978, he became head of the Fuzes and Guidance System Division. He retired in 1987.
Mr. Wack received the Bernard Smith Award from the Naval Surface Weapons Center in 1985.
During the Vietnam War, Mr. Wack participated in a morale-boosting program visiting disabled veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
He was a graduate of the Naval War College in Providence, R.I., and worked after retirement at the engineering consulting firm, Epoch, in Rockville.
He was a member of Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Kensington.
Survivors include his wife of 51 years, Judith Ann Heffernan of Bethesda; eight children, Dr. Mary Frances Wack of Pullman, Wash., Dr. Daniel Wack of Los Altos, Calif., Thomas Wack, Catherine Wack and John Wack, all of Fredericksburg, Elizabeth Wack of Kensington, Dr. Robert Wack of Westminster, Md., and Edward Wack of Waltham, Mass.; a brother, David Wack of White Plains, Md.; five sisters, Mary Catherine Teague of Galveston, Tex., Sr. Eleanor Wack of Akron, Ohio, Anne Roche of Tarpon Springs, Fla., Carol Bailey of Severna Park and Gretchen Griffin of Salem, S.C.; and 15 grandchildren.
WACK, JOHN MONROE
On Wednesday, December 29, 2004, JOHN MONROE WACK, of Bethesda, MD. Beloved husband of Judith A. Wack; father of Mary, Daniel, Thomas, Catherine, Elizabeth, Robert, John and Edward Wack; brother of David Wack, Sister Eleanor Wack, O.P., Mary K. Teague, Carol Bailey, Anne Roche and Gretchen Griffin. Also survived by 15 grandchildren.
Mass of Christian Burial at Holy Redeemer Church, Summit and Cable Dr., Kensington, MD on Monday, January 10, at 1 p.m. Interment Arlington National Cemetery. Memorial contributions may be made to Landmine Survivors Network, 1420 K St., NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20005.
WACK, JOHN M
PVT US ARMY
WORLD WAR II
DATE OF BIRTH: 12/31/1922
DATE OF DEATH: 12/29/2004
BURIED AT: SECTION 38 SITE 4503
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY