Interview of Jim Gentry and his friend Ron Nayson by Conor Hoffmann
How about you guys start by telling me about just growing like, what was life like when you guys were kids?
Alright, Im Jim Gentry and I was born in 1926 so right now I’m 90 years old but my early childhood was spent here in Baltimore and we lived up where the stadium was in Baltimore, 33rd Street and we lived in that neighbourhood and I went to a Catholic Grade School Blessed Sacrament School which was in Govans area of Baltimore and after that I went into High School at ? High School. I was in a family of 6, I was one off 6 children, my father worked for the Gas and Electric company and we were I guess what they would call middle class people, certainly not wealthy but we would get by, it was during the Depression Years so I guess the congratulations ought to go to my parents because we really didn’t understand we were at all on the poor side but we got through that, through the Depression and they came up to graduation from High School in June of, well lets start it this way… the war was already started back in 1941 by reason of the Pearl Harbour event but when it came to graduation from High School the war, the invasion of D-Day, the invasion of France by the armies against the Germans was on June 6th 1944. I graduated from High School on June 10th 1944 on, July 3rd 1944 I became 18 years of age and in August I was in the army. So Ron you can give your early days.
My name is Ron Nayson and I was born in 1928 in Cleveland Ohio and my family moved to Baltimore when I was still an infant, my Dad worked for Glenn L Martin Aircraft Company and they moved to Middle River, Marilyn in 1928/29 so we moved here so it’s been my home all my life. I grew up here, I went to St Michael’s School in Overleaf, I went to Calvert Hall and I was second of six children and we were I guess what we called Depression Babies then, things were pretty rough during the 30’s during the Depression but we all got through it ok and when I was in High School and the war started I remember it. I was coming home from Mass one Sunday and I got home my father had his ear to the radio and saying ‘Shhh’, anyway that was the announcement of Dec 7th 1941 when the Japs bombed Pearl Harbour so I became fascinated with the war ever since. I joined the Civil Defence and worked with them as a kid and when I was 17 I talked my mother into letting me enlist in the Navy even though I didn’t finish High School yet I was at Calvert Hall High School in the 30’s in my 3rd Year. She said well I won’t get any peace unless I let you go so go ahead and I did and it was an uneventful career in the Navy but I enjoyed it, it was training most of the time and going to school and I signed up for the Submarine Service because I was told when I went in they had the best service the best of food the best of everything in the Submarine Service so I signed up to join but when I got back from Boot Camp they had an announcement posted that they had closed several schools one of which was the Submarine Service they didn’t need any more people there so I did take some tests and they came out that I had qualified to go to a 16 week Class A Store Keeper school in Great Lakes and that’s what I did and I ended up being a Petty Officer in charge of a mustering out section so uneventful career and I spent those 2 years in 45 and 46.
The only thing Ron that you caught my attention to was Pearl Harbour Day on 7th Dec 1941… my biggest question of course as an 8th Grader at that time was where they hell is Pearl Harbour I had no idea, nobody had never heard of it and we didn’t know anything about the Japs and how they bombed it causing all that damage… anyhow excuse the interruption.
Do you guys remember when in September 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland was there anything going on in the US when that happened or was it kind of just business as usual?
Not too much from our point of view as we were just kids then… I was like 11 or 12 years old you know but yeah, we followed… I remember being fascinated by the news reels in the movies and they would be showing a lot of the films from Germany when the German I think September 1st 1939 when they started invading Poland, Austria and so forth. I think most of us followed that a little bit even though we were kids and that’s why… Do you remember anything about when Germans invaded France, I was going to say because there is actually a movie coming out this year about Dunkirk and so do you guys remember anything about the Germans invading France and there is the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Yeah that was in the movie Mrs Miniver where they went and got as many survivors as they could from Dunkirk was in a section of the movie Mrs Miniver.
So, what do you remember, you said you enlisted soon after … did you say college or High School?
So how about you talk about that were you scared or anything?
Well I was drafted, they put the draft on I forget what date in August. I was 18 and of course got drafted and reported for basic training to Florida at Camp Blanding and it was supposed to be 17 weeks of basic training for the infantry and our situation and loss of soldiers because of the D-Day invasion and also because of the push through France we lost so much they had to cut back my training from 17 weeks to about 13 or 14 and then instead of a 10 day leave to go we got cut back to 5 day leave so I left in early December for Europe and we went over on the Queen Mary because that was the fastest ship that they had and they planted us in Scotland but we didn’t get off the boat in Scotland, well we did get off the boat but right onto a train and then went south through the whole country of England. I didn’t set foot on the soil because they ran us right down to the Channel and put us on boats over to Le Havre France and from there they pushed us up to where I joined the 80th Infantry Division.
This was all late ’44?
Yes, this was December 1944 and they were at the Battle of the Bulge that followed… D-Day was in June ’44 and the Americans had been making good progress through the northern part of France until the area, what I was concerned with was the area around Belgium and Luxembourg. The Germans had made a last ditch offensive move pushing west and they were in the Luxembourg area and they had surrounded the 101st Airborne Division in mid-Dec 1944.
Well we left off with joining the 80th ID in and around the Luxembourg area that were then engaged in what was later known as the Battle of the Bulge, we were, the casualties were very high on the Allied side and Im sure they were high on the German side too but the Germans had to be… there had to be a break through to the 101st who were doing without ammunition and food and the weather was… they couldn’t drop planes in because the weather was so bad and so cold that… I didn’t personally know this at the time but what I read is that Eisenhower who was then the commander in chief of the Allied forces he asked his 4 army generals who could get to Luxembourg first and of course General Patton said ‘Yes you give me the gasoline and the trucks and I’ll be there very shortly’ so they did, they picked out Patton to come up and it was in southern France and he came up with the 4th Armoured Division and my 80th Division together with the 4th Armoured which was a tank Division we did the breakthrough at Bastogne which is actually in Belgium but is the same area as mentioned all those 4 countries came together right in the corner there around Luxembourg and we went in with the 80th Division in conjunction with the 4th Armoured Division and broke through the line to relieve the 101st Airborne.
So, you were part of that?
I was at the very end of that yes, I don’t know now which day it was I first got to battle it was either 27/28th December, as far as I can remember it was after Christmas. I was in the area at Christmas time of 1944 but I was not yet attached to my squad, regiment part of the Division. It was very, very cold and we were in the Ardennes Forest which is part of this area and it was bitter cold and of course when I joined they had me outfitted with an overcoat and knapsack and all that kind of stuff, we had to get rid of the overcoat and knapsack because we couldn’t run with those, the only thing we had was what we had a field jacket which had a lot of pockets, these were taken up with shells for our ammunition and we didn’t have any need for a mess kit or anything because we weren’t going to get any food sitting there with a knife and fork so the only thing we carried was a spoon which I carried in my pocket to help me with eating K rations. K rations was a little box of things you could sometimes heat up and use but at any rate the winter was very cold and if you could believe this we used to push each other out of the way to get behind the tanks because that nice warm exhaust air to keep warm so we sucked in that exhaust air and thank goodness, I don’t have TB or whatever cancer or whatever it is…
Yeah you thought smoking was bad.
Yeah that’s right… a step beyond smoking.
So, do you have any little stories besides that, anything that stands out to you during that time, memorable moments that you can think off?
Well it was wartime and we were fighting and we thought we were making progress in invading the area, we had, well we really couldn’t dig foxholes so we used whatever hole we could find because the ground was so solidly frozen that we couldn’t dig trenches or foxholes so we just made as best we could, we took prisoners and very seldom we would get hot food and of course there would be no showers or changes, I had the same clothes on for probably about 6 weeks without ever changing.
Without a shave, too…
Oh, without a shave too… of course that didn’t make much difference at 18 as I didn’t have much of a beard.
When you talked about taking prisoners how old were these prisoners, were they young men, were they boys?
At that time, they were regular soldiers in their 20’s but 3 or 4 months later we got 16 year olds or 45 or 50 year olds because they in-between had already been captured or suffered by being in the hospital or the cemetery.
Did you ever see any German tanks or planes?
Oh yes, not many airplanes but as I said the weather was absolutely terrible and overcast and it wasn’t until there was some clearing, I think it was Christmas Day, it finally cleared that they could get some, drop some ammunition and supplies, food to the rest of the Armies. I don’t think the Germans got any but we did and that was very good but up to the time with no air support it was just tanks and infantry in the forest.
So, what happened after the Battle of the Bulge was over did you get any rest or were you sent to other duties right after that?
After that we pushed up all the way up over the Rhine river down at a town called Mainz and Wiesbaden in Germany was on the other side and we were some of the first ones to actually cross into German territory by reason of getting across the Rhine and that was a crossing at 5am I guess in Zodiacs or these little dinghies and we paddled our way across the river whilst we were under fire and thankfully it wasn’t very effective fire coming in from the other side it was rifle fire and it didn’t. I don’t think we lost anybody crossing the Rhine but we did cross and fought on the other side and very quickly took prisoners and that’s when the prisoners were much younger than they had been so we were certainly on the top of things at that time.
You said you had a good buddy who got hit and you went to get him?
Yes, one of our guys got hit but this would have been even later than that and he did die but we tried to get to him. He was on the other side crawling up on the ground trying to see and I was talking to him but he died in my arms. We were able to move him very little to get him back out of the way where he could get some help but we didn’t make it.
Did you say that when you were crossing the Rhine someone fell out of the boat and you went to, swam out to get him and even though they told you not to…?
Wait a minute I… I don’t think I ever swam. I can’t imagine why I would have said that but I dont remember. They were little paddle boats we had and we weren’t too good at it and we had to wade our last in to crawl in on the shore and when we got to the other side it was German soil.
So, anything else you would like to talk about? Any stories or anything that stick out, happy, sad, funny, scary.
Oh yeah there were some of each of those happy and sad and whatnot. We were able every once in a while, and this would have been into February when they took us out of the front line and brought as back to where we could get into showers for the first time and this was the back of a tractor trailer truck that had showers on them and we got a shower and new underwear and new socks and felt like new men. That was a real godsend, we had a couple of days there in that little relief that we got but right back as the war was still there and March and April, the last fighting I was in was in April crossing the river where the Russians were on the other side and the Germans were in between us. If they looked east it would be Russians if they looked West it would be us and we crossed. As far as I was concerned the war was pretty over by 1st May or so… I think it was 7th May 1945 they declared it. I did not know this until much later but apparently … I was a PFC Private First Class and my squad Sgt was from Price, Utah and he had been with us a good while, he was a much older guy. He wasn’t old maybe 25 or 26 but was old for me when I was 18 and he had been very good to me and I thought that he was so happy that we had made that effort to save one of our guys even though we weren’t successful that I think I found out later that he had put in for a Bronze star medal for me but I didn’t get it until after the war but they did mail me a Bronze Star, it was apparently entered in and my company commander endorsed it and it was made part of my record, and they were looking through records after the war was over and noticed I had been awarded a bronze star so this is it… I brought it with me to show you.
So, when the war ended how did you guys feel, happy or…
Absolutely but the war in the Pacific was still on and we figured eventually we were gonna wind up there.
So, were you worried you were going to get shipped?
Then what happened. The bomb… what happened when you found out about dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
How did you guys celebrate if you mind me asking?
War for us was over May 45 and you’re talking August 45 so the war was over in Germany and we were able to get beer.
I remember hearing how the Russians used up their entire supply of vodka in Moscow… unsure if there was similar stuff going on in France.
Did you guys meet here?
We met here right across the hall from each other.
I wasn’t sure I was assuming you guys met here but I wasn’t sure.
So, after the war what did you guys do, did you move on from the military right after or did you stay a little bit?
Well I got out of the Army in Aug 46 and I immediately enrolled for college but I had graduated from high school already so I got underway on my college term and started dating and whatnot and somewhere around 1947 my wife and I got engaged and married in Nov 48 just before my graduation which was in 1949. At that point, we already had a child. I’d have to sit down with a paper and pencil to work out dates we had our children but we were married and oddly enough I guess it was in 1951 or 52. Incidentally I had joined the inactive reserves and I didn’t have any training or draw any pay but they activated the reserves for the Korean War and I did get called up and here I was with 2 children at that time 1951 I think and I got called up and activated and by that time I was a Staff Sgt I got that just before I got discharged the first time but fortunately I spent the whole year I was in the army on active duty in Baltimore in fact i never left home. That was pretty good.
So, you never seen combat in the Korean War.
No and thank God!
I was going to say a lot who did survive WW2 did die in Korea. I forgot to talk about this and if you’re not comfortable talking about this I completely understand and its fine but did you have any experience when they started finding the concentration camps in Europe.
We were I guess May 7th 8th or so 45 when the war was over we were in or very close to Munich and one of the concentration camps was at Dachau probably only 10 or 15 miles outside Munich and we did see what the Germans had done. They opened the gates and walked away. Not very far because they were taken prisoner but anyhow the inmates were the most pathetic sight you could ever imagine seeing. The poor prisoners were there didn’t know they could get away or anything. It just happened that the Germans had left and walked away and there they were they didn’t know where they were and didn’t know that they were free and they were so emaciated they were just skin and bone many of them. Just looked terrible and were still wandering around unsure where they were and what had happened and we tried to explain the war was over and eventually it started to register but we did the worst possible thing we started feeding them candy and stuff and of course they couldn’t tolerate getting that food that they were sick as dogs. Our intentions were good but feeding them candy bars at that point we were getting plenty of candy and other food but it was very sad.
Did the medics have to come and tell you guys to stop giving them food.
I actually had seen a miniseries called Band of Brothers and there is a scene where the GI’s are raiding bakeries taking bread to give to ….
I didn’t see anything like that.
Was the camp already liberated by that point or was it still pretty abandoned and just full of inmates.
It was abandoned but some of the inmates were savvy enough to know they could walk away.
So, you were some of the first people to get there.
And I know it’s probably something tough to talk about but Im really grateful you were able to … so what did you do after the war. I heard you were president of a bank?
Well, I went back to high school started college but I didn’t like college at all so I quit and went to night school instead because I wanted to go to work and I was offered a job at a bank in 1948 and I must have liked it because I stayed there until 1996… I stayed there for 48 years. I had a good career found something I liked to do and went to about 12 years of night school to study banking subjects, money and banking, negotiable instruments, accounting, different lending and all the subjects you have to know effective speaking, and anyway I enjoyed it very much and stayed with it long enough that… I started out as an assistant teller because I didn’t have any experience and before that I was in high school and worked in a supermarket and they tried to talk me into staying and being manager of a supermarket but the hours were long, the pay was good but the hours were long and I talked to the overall vice president supervisor of this company and he came around asking what do you think. he said get out, he was honest he said this isn’t for you it’s not a good business to be in you work too long hours and you don’t get the recognition here if I were you I would look for other employment and that’s when I went to the bank and stayed there and progressed through teller branch manager vice president, treasurer all the way up to the king, president in 1976 and chief executive officer in 1982 and chairman of the board and stayed through my whole career and retired in 1990 and stayed on the board to 1996 48 years and a very satisfying career and the bank has done well and had a lot of growth and I introduced a lot of things in my career there and it was exciting to me and in between of course I got married and raised 5 children and that’s kind of a short story of my deal. I had an opportunity to go graduate Brown University School of Banking a three-year programme up there and I also went to Massachusetts for manager development programme so they prepared me and my handwriting was on the wall and I put up with a lot of jealousy then and once you’ve been through that they know you have been selected so…
What about you Jim what did you do after the war?
Well as I mentioned I went to college as soon as I got out. I graduated in 49 and went to Law School and graduated in 1953 and at this time I was married with a number of children. The final count was 10 children and today it’s 10 children plus 30 grandchildren plus 8 grandchildren so I was ummm busy. My career after law school I did some of the things Law students usually do. I got into the State’s Attorney office as a prosecutor for a couple of years then went to the Attorney General’s Office for a couple of years then I joined a Monumental Life Insurance Company as General Counsel for the company and there was not a lot of legal work mostly finance but I was with that company until I retired in 1998 I believe it was I, I hope that adds up.
You did pretty well for yourselves both of you.
Is there anything you want to tell people about the war that you think they should know or anything about that time period that you think people ought to know.
We were very fortunate to have great patriotism and believed we were in the right which I knew we were and that Germany had to be defeated and Japan had to be defeated and if it had to be done with an atom bomb then so be it, it had to be done and we continue to believe America is a great country and both of us had our own special roles in bringing it to the nice stage to which it is now.
They said we are the great generation and I believe we are the great generation even though we had to go through the Depression as youngsters but after the war you could see the growth of the country homebuilding and you can see the veterans coming back and getting educated and building the country as they grow up and very satisfying time as far as I’m concerned in my lifetime and I’m very grateful to have lived through that period and progress and I hope my children do just as well.
Do you remember where you were first stationed you said you went to Scotland and England where did you first go when you were in France… you said there was a rush to get you to the front lines.
We got off the boat at Le Havre, France but they put us on trucks and rushed us as fast as they could across the upper border of France to the area where the war was…
So, the Battle of the Bulge is already going on at that time? And you were always in infantry you were never like part of a tank unit or in a vehicle.
No. We travelled behind the tank.
Ok. On foot, right?
Did they ever have you riding in trucks when you were out on the front or was that something they couldn’t do?
Everything was tanks and walking.
So, during your stay what was your main role on the front lines, did you have any specific roles to fill?
I was a rifleman you know. I was a rifleman in a rifle company and we fought on the ground with an M1 rifle and with a squad, part of a platoon and the platoon was part of a company and the company was part of a battalion and the battalion was part of the Division and Division was the 80th, part of the Third Army.
Now so you saw combat, was there any incidents where combat was particularly bad or I think I asked was there any humorous stories of combat, like silly moments or happy moments or were there scary moments?
There were a lot of scary moments and I don’t know, nothing comes up, I’m sure there were times where I was particularly happy or special but happiest moments were when I finally got a shower. And the worst moments were when we got back to hand to hand fighting. And Im saying hand to hand but not physically hand to hand, not with bayonets, we got rid of our bayonets we were never going to use that type of thing but we were rifle company using the M1 rifle and the enemy could be anywhere from 40 feet away to maybe half a mile and we could be under fire… the German Army was really well equipped and they had much better equipment than we had. Their Panzer tanks that carried a .30 cal…. I don’t know the calibre but anyhow their guns were tremendous.
Yeah, I heard the 88 was the biggest… the 88 mm.
Yeah, the Tiger Tanks.
So, you talked about you had that buddy who was killed, do you remember any other casualties in your unit.
Oh yes one died.
Yes, that’s the one you got the star, was there any guys who made it? Who you remember.
Yeah yeah, I stayed close all these years with my squad leader he was a Sgt from Utah, I stayed close to him. When we first got back we had all these promises we were going to get together and all that but we never. Everyone got married, got schooled and went in different directions from all over the country. I went to a couple of conventions of the 80th Division but didn’t run into people I knew. Were there any other medals or citations you received beyond the Bronze Star?
Well they, my jacket which I saw I still have a picture of you in my jacket which I cant get across my chest anymore but on that I have the WW2 victory medal, the Battle of the Bulge victory and I don’t know whatever else, nothing of any great moment. Oh except the most important badge I got and wore with my uniform was not the Bronze Star but the Combat Infantry Badge which you got for being 30 days in combat.
Is that the one that looks like a musket, yeah it looks like a musket. Do you remember there being any conflict between your unit and the higher command, them telling you to do something that you thought was crazy?
Im sure there was things we didn’t like but I was a Private 1st Class and they didn’t consult me on many matters.
I mean like was there times where your Sgt says ‘Ok command wants us to advance down that road’… and those guys are shooting machine guns.
That’s what we did, if command says advance down that road that’s what you did.
So, did you stay in touch with your family, did you send letters back and forward while you were on the front?
We never got a chance to mail home. But we were getting mail from our families.
Did they have a thing to make sure you weren’t writing stuff…
Oh yeah you had to CO your envelope if you were writing home.
What was the food like that you usually ate?
Started with a ‘D’ ration which was a candy bar hard and high protein chocolate about the size of a Milky Way or something and that was the ‘D’ ration next up the line was ‘K’ ration, boxes about the size of, they could be about the size of a carton of cigarettes or something about that size and that was edible but depending on how hungry you were on whether you wanted to throw up. And you got a couple of cans of food in it and you heated up by breaking open the box which was treated with something that would burn like a candle and that’s what heated it up and next up from that was ‘C’ rations and that was cans of beans or anything much like Dennymore Stew, they didn’t have that at the time but it would have been like that. None of it was great.
Did you have any good luck charms or anything you kept on your person that you kept for good luck or reminded you of home?
Yes, what it was that I carried very often in my hand the whole… well not the whole day was my rosary.
Oh really. So, you’re a practising Catholic.
Yeah, practising Catholic. You were scared.
Yeah, I seen Saving Private Ryan when he kisses his rosary… so would you pray when you were in danger. Would you hold that and pray with it if you felt you were in danger or something?
How did you entertain yourselves, did you entertain yourselves or did the Army provide you with things to do or watch or was that not often?
Not while the war was going on, we got a lot of entertainment after the war.
How did you keep yourself occupied?
I’ll tell you a funny story, we were in a small town in the Bavaria area when the war ended, we were told it was over on the 5th May so the guys knew that first of all that I was never a drinker and had never been drunk and that I’d never been with a woman so they wanted to celebrate the end of the war by teaching me some of the better things in life so they got hold of some red wine and they poured that in tumblers and made me drink it sitting around this kitchen table of this house and they watched me get stone drunk then they paid or conned in some way some young gal, young fraulein to get into bed upstairs… naked and they got me upstairs and pt me in bed with her and I was supposed to find the finer things in life you know. Instead I got sick and threw up all over her and all over myself and that was the end of the party for me.
God works in strange ways.
So that was my WW2 experience and oh to add when I sobered up the next day they told me it was a mistake the war wasn’t over and when they told me that on the 5th May… well they did end it on the 7th but… oh my God I thought I got to go through this again.
Were there any pranks or what…?
Yeah that one I just told ya.
But like when you were in a foxhole or whatever were there anything you would do to keep yourself occupied when there was nothing going on or did you just sit there… did you ever read or talk to the other guys in the hole or…
You could do a little talking but no there wasn’t much.
Do you have any photos of that time period?
No, I didn’t have any personal photos and I knew I created a scrapbook because I did eventually get a hold of a camera somewhere toward the end, it was a German camera and I got some pictures taken and I had a very nice collection I thought and put them in a scrapbook but I can’t find the scrapbook.
Oh no. Maybe you will find it someday who knows. Did you have a diary of that time?
No, no diary.
So you already mentioned how you still keep in touch with some guys who were in your unit… were there any times you had to cooperate with any British forces or Allied forces from different countries?
So, no French, Canadian, Australians, New Zealanders or anything like that?
We had a, this is long after the peace came in the summer of 1945 and we were in the Munich area and we had run into British and Canadian soldiers and talked to them but nothing special.
Did you take anything interesting back, like souvenirs?
I brought back, not a lot of souvenirs but like many of the GI’s that were coming out got a hold of guns and I had 2. A .38 pistol and a Luger 35 or something and when I got them home and kept them at home, you know until I was married and had kids and you know I thought I got to get rid of these things and I did I went down the hawk shop and sold them for like $25. I got rid of them I didn’t want anything to have to do with guns.
That’s still cool yeah. I think that’s everything. Thanks for sticking round to answer these questions I really appreciate your time guys. Thank you for coming over.
Good luck with the project.