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Tweedt survives horrors of war to tell his story

By Staff | Jul 2, 2009

Lois and Vernon Tweedt in 1942.

PLANO, Ill. – The photo of Vernon Tweedt at Camp Edwards at Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., shows a young soldier, snapped to attention with his carbine with fixed bayonet, ready to do his duty for Uncle Sam in World War II.

The next year, a photo of then Cpl. Tweedt shows a man seated at the base of a piece of ancient Italian statuary, smiling, but with a certain knowledge in his eyes – a knowledge of war.

A photo this year of Rev. Tweedt taken at his home in Plano, Ill., shows a man many years after 410 days in combat who had to take other lives to save his own – and then live on to help liberate Jews from the Nazi holocaust.

Rev. Tweedt, an Estherville native now living in Illinois where he is retired from the ministry, was interviewed as part of an oral history project by The National World War II Museum in New Orleans. He was one of 2,500 veterans nationwide interviewed for the project.

Tweedt’s wife is the former Lois Fransdal, also previously from Estherville.

Tweedt with his carbine at Camp Edwards in Massachusetts.

Tweedt was on the family farm when he was drafted. He wanted to enlist right after Pearl Harbor, but his father persuaded him to wait to be drafted.

And so he was drafted in 1942 and trained as an artillery man and assigned to A Battery, 131st Field Artillery Battalion, 36th Infantry Division. During his enlistment, he took part in every battle and amphibious landing in which the 36th was engaged.

After shipping out, Tweedt first landed in North Africa where he trained for the invasion of Salerno, Italy. It was there that he saw a Higgins boat slip too fast off an LST and went into the water. A number of other Higgins boats also took direct hits. “You could see bodies fly in the air 10, 15 feet,” Tweedt said.

Contemplating the ministry even long before he was drafted, Tweedt was able to seek out within his mind the serenity that only God could provide. He was ready to meet his maker.

Even his sergeant noticed.

Tweedt with his gunnery team. Tweedt is on the howitzer.

“You know, Tweedt, I can’t figure you out,” his sergeant said. “You seem so calm and collected here.”

“Come what may, I am ready here,” Tweet said.

He also fought at Anzio Beach, the liberation of Rome, and Monte Casino. After that it was on to southern France where he landed Aug. 15, 1944, just a little over two months after D-Day.

In Germany, he was a member of the Lost Battalion that was cut off from Allied forces and behind German lines.

“We learned since the Germans didn’t know they had us surrounded,” Tweedt said ironically.

Tweedt beside a statue in Italy.

It was a Japanese regiment that finally broke through so his battalion could rejoin the 36th, said Tweedt. Japanese-Americans, whom the government did not trust enough to fight in the Pacific Theater of operations, were trusted enough to fight in Europe while their families in the U.S. had their homes stolen and were imprisoned. As the Japanese-Americans served in Europe, though, they were so heavily decorated there wasn’t enough room on their uniforms for all the fruit salad.

“If anybody talked derogatorily about Japanese-Americans, a 36th Division member would stand up on his feet,” Tweedt said.

Tweedt remembers as his closest call the time when he was a forward observer directing artillery fire in eastern France. His unit was in an abandoned farmhouse on a high bluff overlooking a large valley near the German border. During the night the Germans moved a 20-millimeter gun through a ravine close to the farmhouse.

Tweedt stood in the shadows, at the ready with his .45, when two Germans crossed toward the house.

“It was a matter of them or me,” Tweedt said. “They came back across and I plugged two of them.”

The Germans then opened up with the 20-millimeter while he and another soldier lay in the haymow. That was when they carried the radio back to the American line.

While he harbors no guilt about that incident, knowing it was war, Tweedt does regret the time he gave C-rations to a Jewish man just liberated from a concentration camp, not knowing what the high-energy food would do to a starving person. The man gulped down the food and immediately toppled over dead. “I have since then asked the Lord to forgive me,” Tweedt said.

He also remembers traveling up the Rhone Valley and reaching Grenoble south of Paris. They had been told to be ready to fire point blank with their 105 because a Panzer tank had broken through the lines.

Another time the Germans had moved in a 16-inch railroad gun, as big as a gun on a Missouri-class battleship. One shell the Germans fired exploded 25-30 feet from him, and a foot-long piece of shrapnel flew just three inches above his head. “It would have decapitated me if it had been lower,” he said.

Asked what was his best experience in theater, said Tweedt, “The greatest thing was the fact that my life was spared. I was sure in my mind that I would be saved for the holy ministry.”

When he arrived back in the States, Tweedt shared his experiences with his father. The bond between them grew even stronger when they realized they had been in many of the same cities in France while in the military – his father in World War I.

It was Ken Burns’ film series, “The War,” that made him recall how many experiences he had when his life was within inches of ending.

But he didn’t even remember them.

He said he believes the body is able to defend itself by protective memory loss. “That’s the only way that I could explain it,” he said.

During a reunion a former Army buddy told Tweedt’s wife Lois that one time her husband had been at the gun for eight hours. The man said he offered to relieve Tweedt.

“You stay in the foxhole because I’m ready to die and you’re not,” Tweedt told his friend.

After the war, Tweedt attended Augsburg College where he received a degree in history with a Greek minor. He went on to Luther Seminary in Decorah and was ordained in 1951 – at his home church in Estherville.

His first parish was at Bowdon, N.D., about 30 miles west of Carrington. From there he went to Sinai, S.D., Joliet, Ill.,Thompson, and Platteville, Ill.

This spring, an interviewer from the National World War II Museum met with Vernon at his home in Plano and taped a two-hour interview. It was a good time to relive his memories – even the bad ones.