On May 13, the hospital moved within twelve miles of Bologna. I asked the doctor how soon before I could leave, and within an hour, I was on my way out. At a replacement camp two miles from Bologna, I was outfitted with clothes and a rifle. [I had] been with strangers so long that I was glad to get back with people that I knew.
On May 15, we were separated into groups, placed on trucks, and [sent] back to our units. All the way [north] I stretched my neck to see the destruction. Thousands of burnt and destroyed vehicles lay in the ditches, especially near the Po, where the Air Force had cut them off so that they were unable to cross. We passed one POW camp with at least fifty thousand men in it. Then there was a camp with thousands of horses waiting to be returned to whoever they belonged to. Some towns were untouched, and others were completely destroyed. The fields here reminded me of Flanders with red poppies in green fields. We crossed the Po River on a temporary bridge rather than in an Army Duck and stopped at another replacement camp where we had dinner and then were separated into smaller groups.
We could see the Alps, with snow near the peaks, and went through Trento and between mountains and dangerous looking cliffs. Engineers had to repair many of the places before we could go through. Within fifty miles of the Austrian border we saw miles of German vehicles loaded with supplies heading south almost without guard. With each convoy there were a few GIs and Germans MPs to take care of their own men. The further we went, the more Germans we saw. It was strange to see German and American MPs working together as if they had always been friendly. It seemed like a horrible joke after all the years of bloody fighting.
After many hours of riding we arrived at Bolzano, where our units were located. After many greetings, I was made comfortable in one of the rooms in a big house that had been taken over. It was wonderful to live in a fine house with good food and little to do. Bolzano had been German before the last war, so most of the people still spoke German, and the signs were in German. Bolzano was clean, fresh and neat, in contrast to the dirty Italian towns.
We had lectures on occupation duties and some calisthenics. Our job was [simply] to occupy and keep order. There was some light guard duty to enforce the curfew, and we locked up a few drunks in a small building for the night for breaking it.
Some of my squad was in St. Jacobs near Bologna, and [they] sent for me because I could understand German. My first experience was talking to German guards, [but] I had a hard time making myself understood. The sergeant in charge was drunk most of the time and so were many of the others. I was uncomfortable here in the former school house. The bed was good but the constant noise made it hard to sleep at night.
On May 19, a messenger came to take me to my lieutenant to act as an interpreter [when he delivered] a convoy of German WACs to Verona. We rode in a small Fiat with a German driving. A German First Sergeant, knew how to handle the three buses full of girls, but he said that he would rather handle a bushel of fleas than a dozen girls. It was a hard trip for all of us, [with] heavy traffic and frequent breakdowns of the vehicles. We also had to keep the buses in sight at all times as we didn't want to lose a bus full of girls. Every time we stopped, people mobbed the buses to see the girls. After many hours of riding toward Verona, we couldn't find the proper POW camp and arrived at the wrong one at three in the morning. There was nothing else to do but to stay. The girls lay on the ground, and we dozed in the car.
We started back early for Verona, but [it was difficult to find] gas and oil for the vehicles. Lieutenant Jackson gave the German driver permission to have his girl friend ride with us, so she sat in the back seat and kept me company. In German she told me of the many places that she had been with the German army. I felt sorry for some of the girls as they were so young and good looking.
We were all tired when we finally got to the POW camp. Here the girls were deloused, searched, and kept under the discipline of German woman leaders. I got a meal at the mess hall and then we returned with the empty buses. The German First Sergeant sat with me and talked about his many experiences, how they were terrorized by our planes, etc. The girl left him with a basket of cherries, which I helped eat. We also stopped at the Red Cross at Verona for coffee and doughnuts. The roads were filled with vehicles taking POWs south. There were also a lot of people with bags walking to the places they had come from.
At St. Jacobs we lived in a house, and the food was brought in to us from the company. What was left we gave to the people upstairs who spoke German and were friendly to us. We had nothing to do but walk and try to enforce the curfew, which was almost hopeless. I did take a few nude sunbaths in an orchard in the afternoons. Daily we walked guard and checked suspicious characters. There were problems with partisans robbing and beating other Italians and with GIs stealing bicycles. Our squad leader was drunk most of the time, so anything important was referred the lieutenant in Laives.
[Eventually] we were packed up and sent back to the company at Laives, a beautiful town, and [were] quartered in an old school house. Every morning we had calisthenics and a short hike. There were lectures, etc., nothing hard. It was beautiful country, and the trees were full of fruit. I enjoyed talking to a native in German, and I went to a Catholic Church in which the sermon was in German.
On June 5, we were taken back to Bolzano and, with the proper ceremony, turned the city and area back to Italian troops. It was a colorful ceremony, and the people cheered and waved. Three days later we packed up and, after six hours of riding, pitched our pup tents along Lake Garda. We were no more than settled when three of us were issued passes. After hours of waiting we went on the wildest, fastest ride imaginable. We were going to have a good time if it killed us. We went through Milan and Genoa, cities of tall buildings and apartments, very modern. Even the people looked better.
After twelve hours of riding, we arrived at Alassio, a resort town only a few miles from the French border. The people spoke Italian but looked French. We were given a five-day pass, a food card, a brief talk, and then our freedom to have a good time. We couldn't go near the water because of the barbed wire. The evidences of war were everywhere: emplacements, pillboxes, and foxholes. I spent most of the time at the Red Cross where they had a coffee bar and a form of ice cream. The meals were small but good and we enjoyed being served by waiters. [I bought] a marcasite pin for Evelyn. In the town were many displaced persons trying to find a ride home. We felt sorry for these unfortunates.
I found it most comfortable at Lake Garda. The routine was easy and the food good, so time went fast. We swam, bathed, washed clothes and lay in the sun. Some fellows fished with grenades.
On June 17, we moved to a farm on the outskirts of Modena. There were many tents in neat rows, six of to a tent, with cots and mosquito bars to keep away the insects. It annoyed me to see so many natives wandering around in our area. There was no running water, so we used a helmet as a basin again. While I was wondering what we were doing here, I got a notice that I was on a detail to take a convoy of Russians to Austria.
On June 18, we started for Austria with three trucks and C-rations for four days and picked up a large convoy of Russians dressed in GI uniforms. They had been part of the German Army, had been captured, and now were being sent back to the Russians in Austria. We rode through Verona, Vicenza, San Pletro in Gù through British Italy, British Austria, and then into Russian Austria near Leaben where our trip ended. We rode day and night with a stop every hour for rest. We had orders not to use our weapons if any of them tried to escape; we were only there for their protection. The further we got into Austria, the prettier it got.
At the Russian sector of Austria,we had to wait for hours before they would let us in. The Russians [seemed] old and fierce, and they looked holes through us. After a few miles, they took their men away. We felt sorry for them because we heard that most of them would be shot if they didn't have the right answers.
The Inn in the town was the Russian headquarters. They had a meal for us there of soup and bread, which didn't fill us, so we also used our C-rations. The Russians then sent us out to the brewery for some barrels of beer. One of their non-coms ordered the people of the town to billet us in their homes. So we were all in different homes. One Austrian, when he found that I understood German, took me around and showed me how the Russians had stripped all of their factories. I could see unhappiness everywhere as people obeyed but didn't like it. I had quite a talk with an Austrian girl about billeting and the Russian officers. Bradley and I shared a fine bed in a fine room even if someone had no place to sleep because of us. The people did seem to like us and tried to be friendly. I think each one of us felt thankful that we were not under Russian domination. The people seemed so full of fear as they had to accept the fact that they were losers. The Russians were busy driving horses and cattle toward their camps. We heard many stories of terrorism.
On the way back we made a tour of Udine just to see it. Then near town we stopped and bedded down in a field. We left in the morning after killing much time and came back to Modena looking pretty rough and dirty.
On June 22, I got a pass and went into town to the Red Cross, where I visited an enlisted man's club and heard a German POW band play. There was drinking and dancing, but the Italian girls didn't seem in too much of a hurry to get friendly with the GIs. Every time I went into Modena, there were hundreds of people in groups waiting for a pickup to other points. They seemed so sad and tired.
Later I had to guard a couple of German prisoners on a detail; they seemed meek and willing to work. We were forbidden to talk to them, but from their conversation they talked as if the Americans were treating them well. There was a large cage for prisoners in Modena where thousands of prisoners lived under all sorts of tents. There was no privacy or comfort for them; but the war was over. The temperature now became too hot, and time hung heavy on our hands. I sent some souvenirs home: a helmet, a dagger, etc.
At the end of June, fifty of us were moved to an ordinance place in town. We lived in a large stone building and served as guards for several hundred German POWs who were repairing captured weapons. I have never seen so many thousands of machine guns and perhaps a hundred thousand rifles stacked like cord wood. The area was several acres wide and was surrounded by a large stone wall. At each corner was a machine gun. There was guard duty every night, but the Germans had no desire to run away. Some wanted news of the area where I had recently been to deliver the Russian prisoners to Austria. There were hot showers, the food was far superior to the Army mess, and it was close to town. We had much freedom, and we began to enjoy our stay. Meanwhile, Evelyn wrote that we should not get married until the war with Japan was over. I had tried to get her to marry me on furlough before I went to the Far East.
On July 10, a new friend, Kilby, and I hitchhiked to Bologna. We visited a super Red Cross, had our picture taken on the roof of a garden, and we ate at a free GI restaurant. When we got back we found much confusion as we were getting ready to move. Our company was divided into six parts.
We left our ideal location for the quiet town of Marmirola near Mantua. We relocated in a theater building. The food was fair, cooked by two drunken cooks. The area was filled with beautiful, cemented irrigation ditches filled with clear, sparkling water. We took advantage of it to bathe and wash. Kilby was badly bruised when he was sucked into one of the culverts. Someone had a radio that blared so-called music while we tried to sleep. Some men spent their time drinking. Our cooks traded food to women for favors.
I had guard duty at a large ammunition dump and was able to have long talks with some of the German prisoners. We took six hours of guard duty at a time so as not to be bothered so often. A German driver would come and get us and then would come back for us. In this area the prisoners were kept busy sorting, repairing, and shipping shells. We were here to guard the Germans from the Italians because they hated each other.
July 15 was [the anniversary] of the day I gave the engagement ring to Evelyn. I went to an Italian movie but couldn't understand it. I met Clarquist, the Christian who tried to preach to the Italians, and one day he had a service for us. The German driver who took us swimming was such a nice fellow that we let him swim with us. Only yesterday we were out to kill each other.
On July 27, I was transferred to Mantova Ordinance, where some of my squad had been for some time. We had it pretty good most of the time. There were good showers and sanitary conditions, and the food was extra good. The men here ate like kings. There was ice cream and watermelon at every meal. I was sorry I couldn't eat more. I had always wanted to see an opera, so I walked into the castle courtyard where Rigoletto was being performed. There was room for thousands, a big orchestra and soft lights. It was like a circus for the Italians, but I got tired of it and left early.
One Sunday morning I [was assigned to] a convoy of tanks and trailer trucks to deliver a couple of broken tanks to a repair center in Milan. There were six trailer trucks, each with a German driver and a guard. The trip took all day because of the narrow roads and because of an accident [that occurred] when one of the drivers, watching a girl by the side of the road, ran into a large object. In Milan we stopped at a large ordinance depot that had once been an aircraft factory. The Germans were put up with the prisoner workers and we were put up in one of the shops. A couple of the trucks needed repair so we had a whole day with nothing to do. I rode on a trolley and saw much of the beautiful city.
After much trouble they loaded each trailer with an American tank and we started back. There were many breakdowns as the tanks got loose and shifted around and had to be retied. It took five hours of combined effort get [the convoy] over a small bridge and hill. We got back into camp in the morning after a dirty, tiring job. One of the Germans had an accordion, and he entertained us.
On August 2 we moved to the other end of town near a hospital, into a place that looked like it might have been a factory. We ate at the hospital. The food was super, but the barracks were crowded and noisy. There were Italian children hanging around, so we had to watch our belongings. However, we found that our own men are worse and will steal anything to finance their good times. All we had to do was a little guard duty. I once tried to talk to an Italian guard in Italian while he tried to talk to me in German. It was a total failure.
On August 4, we were sent to Verona. Here we waited for hours in a bomb-shattered station until a train came [to take us to Naples.] It was a surprisingly easy trip, and we were in good spirits. The further South we got, the worse the destruction, and below Bologna the people looked so much poorer. We saw Rimini as we passed along the shore of the Adriatic. It looked green and clear. There were a few bathers and sailboats. In southern Italy there was not a single undamaged bridge or road to be seen. The train stopped often, and candy, cigarettes, and clothing changed hands. The Italians would buy anything.
In Naples thousands of GIs waited for shipping lists. We were processed quickly and put into different buildings. There was a buzz of excitement at the thought of being so close to going home. We lived in style and had all kinds of things to keep us busy: movies, books, schools. We turned in all of our extra equipment and were given a new address, a shot in the arm, and a physical.
On August 12 , I went to the Protestant chapel for a service, and after dinner we exchanged our scrip for American money. Now that I was ready to leave, I began to fear the day when I would have to meet Evelyns friends. I had no job to come back to and faced a completely new life.
The next day, with great joy, we boarded the boat that was to take us home. We were packed like sardines but were free from fear. The Red Cross gave out games and books to keep us busy. I wasn't seasick at all this time and enjoyed the trip more. The sea was blue and calm as we sailed past Africa. The Atlantic also was calm with ideal weather. We spent hours just looking into the sea and dreaming of the future. Then came news of the end of the war with Japan, and our hearts were so much lighter.
On August 20 we landed near Boston amid the cheers of the people and the whistles of the boats. My eyes teared as I saw America again, not having been sure of ever returning. We were cheered as if we were heroes and were taken to clean roomy trains, given ice cream, milk, newspapers and made comfortable. Then at Camp Miles Standish, we were given detailed instructions on what was being done to get us out of there in a hurry. In the morning, we were put on another train for Indiantown Gap. I passed right through Frankford but could not get off.
It took hours until we were separated and checked in at Indiantown Gap. [There were] more clean sheets and blankets and replacements for old clothes but no discipline. Everyone was impatient for orders to go on furlough.
On August 26, after receiving orders to report to Fort Jackson after my furlough, I took a bus to a nearby town and from there took a train to Philadelphia and from there, an elevated and trolley. It felt so strange to be on the way home. My folks were at church, so I left my duffle bag at home and took a trolley there and met them as they came out of church.
After dinner I called Hartleys to see if Evelyn was home. She wasn't, so I made a date to meet her at the apartment after supper. It took a long time to find 412 Grove St., Haddonfield, [New Jersey] because the numbers confused me The ice cream that I was carrying started to melt. I was excited but not as much as Evelyn. Her mother said that she never saw her carry on so. After this we saw each other daily and made plans to get married [even though] we didn't know when I would be discharged.
In September, Evelyn and I went to Harvey Cedars [Bible Conference] one Saturday, and one Sunday I went to her church, the Bible Presbyterian Church of Collingswood. When I began to meet her friends, I was scared silly and ill at ease. It seemed that everyone was waiting to see the perfect man that she had been waiting for. After thirty days I had to go to Fort Jackson but was given another fifteen day furlough. It was foolish to have to come back, but we had to do so and pay our own way as well. I still didn't know my discharge date.
After reporting to Fort Jackson on October 17, I killed time at camp between the PX, the library, the movies and the service club. I had three teeth filled by the first woman dentist that I had ever seen. Columbia, South Carolina was a nice town, full of GIs, and had a fine USO. I also went to an evening service at Columbia Bible College. On October 20, I had KP and picked eyes out of potatoes as I had done when I first entered the Army. Points were still the main topic, the more points the quicker [the discharge]. The officers and non coms were so kind to us that it didn't seem like the Army anymore. I remember how we were kicked around during training.
On October 24, we received instructions about GI benefits and all kinds of records were made. Orders were put in for new clothes and a discharge emblem sewn on. Finally, on October 27, we were given our new clothes and a jacket with the emblem on it. A band played, and we were given that coveted paper. It was hard to believe that we were civilians again and facing a new life.
On October 28 I arrived home and, with great reluctance, put on my civilian clothes. Evelyn and I made plans to get married. There was much to do, and I ran back and forth with Dad's Studebaker.
On November 24, 1945 at 4 p.m., Evelyn and I were married in the Bible Presbyterian Church of Collingswood by Dr. Carl McIntire. The reception at Haddon House, Kings Highway and Potter Street, Haddonfield, was for close relatives only and for Pastor Herrman of my Immanuel Lutheran Church of Frankford.
John Matzko and Evelyn Austin were married for almost forty-six years and raised three sons who became, respectively, a history teacher, an engineer, and a chemist. John briefly managed a corner grocery and then for many years worked as a supermarket meat cutter in Collingswood, New Jersey. He continued to enjoy simple pleasures and tinkered with mechanical and carpentry projects in his spare time. Although he often displayed his ironic sense of humor within the family, he was rarely at ease among strangers. Shortly after his marriage, John joined the Bible Presbyterian Church of Collingswood, founded by fundamentalist radio preacher Carl McIntire. His Christian faith was sincere and never affected. In 1983, John and Evelyn Matzko moved to Greenville, South Carolina, and John died there on August 17, 1991 from complications of chronic asthma and Parkinsons disease. He is buried in Bala-Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, beside his mother.
© John A. Matzko