The following article is © 2004 by The Iola Register of Iola, Kansas, and is reproduced here with permission.
April 22, 2004
By BOB JOHNSON, Register City Editor
Tears well up in his eyes and his voice breaks as Wayne Luedke recalls events of nearly 60 years ago.
Luedke, a big man who anyone would think was tough as they come, spent 154 days in combat during World War II. His division fought in three major battles – Central Europe, Rhineland and Battle of the Bulge – and liberated prisoners at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany.
The scenes of torture and depravity at the death camp, things done that by any reasoning were inhuman, are indelibly etched in his mind.
So are memories of the broken and dead bodies of the young American men with whom he fought.
Luedke doesn’t dwell on the past, but every now and again memories flood back and he is gripped by emotion.
Wayne Luedke relaxed in a small office in his Colony, Kansas home and talked about how lucky he was during World War II.
He recalled how he spent his first 16 months in the service at various Army posts in the United States, how his unit missed the Normandy Invasion, how when his anti-aircraft outfit did arrive in Europe the Germany Luftwaffe was a fraction of its original size and how his outfit, meant to be sacrificed during the Battle of the Bulge, came out relatively unscathed.
Luedke’s anti-aircraft unit, armed with 40-millimeter and quad 50-caliber machine guns, was attached to the 87th Infantry Division. The division, a part of Gen. Patton’s Third Army, sprinted across France toward Germany after arriving in Europe, five months following Allied landings on France’s Normandy coastline.
“Patton knew how to fight Germans,” Luedke said. “He never let up, didn’t give them time to regroup. Just kept pounding away”
The Third Army’s advance reached the Siegfried Line, France’s ineffective defensive front to Germany, in December 1944, when the Germans were thought to be on their heels and retreating into the homeland. That’s when Germany’s last gasp counterattack, the Battle of the Bulge, started in the Ardennes on the German-Belgium border.
“We didn’t have anything to match the German Tiger tanks, but then no one thought that they’d try anything like that,” Luedke said.
The Allies’ response to the attack, the largest fought by U.S. forces in World War II, was blunted by foul weather that grounded aircraft and winter conditions that made surviving, much less fighting, an ordeal.
“The Germans were trying to reach our fuel dumps because they were running out of gasoline,” Luedke said.
Reinforcements were directed to the Bastogne area, where fighting was the most fierce, and Luedke’s antiaircraft outfit was ordered to help slow the German advance.
“Our direct fire (toward ground forces) was devastating,” but no match for Tiger tanks, he said.
The strategy was to slow the Germans, no matter the cost, until the weather cleared so Allied air power could be thrown to the fray. The weather cleared more quickly than expected and Luedke’s unit was spared becoming involved in what likely would have been a bloody, last-ditch fight against the Germans.
“We lucked out,” he said.
The 87th Infantry moved across the Rhine River and into Germany early in 1945 and on April 11 liberated the Buchenwald Concentration camp.
Luedke arrived a couple of days later, but little had changed from when unopposed US soldiers – the Germans had withdrawn when they knew the Americans were near – arrived at the camp.
“They were having everyone see what had happened there,” Luedke said of the three hours or so he spent at the concentration camp.
“The stench, the smell of decomposing human bodies, was beyond description. It stank to high heaven. I remember that and the inhuman ways that the prisoners had been treated.”
“I also remember the lack of emotion from the few prisoners who were still alive. They’d look at you with a blank stare, just like they were looking through you.”
Luedke also remembers the piles of dead bodies, some stacked like firewood, and other ghastly sights that even today are hard for him to describe.
“Some people say they don’t think that it (the Holocaust) happened, that it was all made up,” Luedke said. “It was real, very real. I saw things that’re hard to image one human would do to another.”
He thinks there still are lessons to be learned from the atrocities committed in the death camps.
“People here have every opportunity and so many of them mess it up, don’t take advantage of all that is available to them,” he said.
“Too many just don’t seem to care.”
Luedke finds that distressing when he remembers the millions of prisoners, soldiers and civilians who died or were maimed during World War II.
“I don’t think it really dawned on me then what was happening. Through the years I’ve not let it consume me, but hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about all those young American boys who died and sometimes about the people in those concentration camps and how they suffered,” he said, his voice quivering to the point that he had to stop talking for a few minutes.
“I was put in a bad position,” he said, “and did all I could to survive. I look around today and what I see doesn’t make me happy. People who can have almost anything just let it slip away from them. That’s when I think most about all the wasted lives in World War II.”
Luedke spent his younger years in the Butler, Mo., area. His family – he had seven brothers and two sisters – moved to Colony in 1939 just before he enrolled in Colony High School as a sophomore.
“Dad sheared sheep,” he said. “We had uncles in western Kansas who set us up with sheep to shear. Dad also bought hay from around here and thought we could get into the hay business if the family moved to Colony.
Luedke and his brothers were immersed in whatever pursuits his father thought would be beneficial to family finances, but he never liked shearing sheep. “Sheep stink and shearing them’s no fun,” he said.
After being graduated from high school, Luedke wanted to continue his education and enrolled at the college in Pittsburg. His college education, at that juncture, lasted a semester. The war was heating up.
“I didn’t want to go (to war) but I also didn’t not want to go,” he said.
He, like millions of other young men, went.
In April of 1943 he was at Camp Edwards, Mass., training with the anti-aircraft outfit that eventually would be attached to the 87th Infantry in the march across Europe.
Luedke was involved in combat for the first time at Metz, France, in November 1944 against German soldiers who gave in to the fresh American forces after three days of fighting. Within weeks he was headed for the Battle of the Bulge and what promised to be difficult times before weather cleared, and permitted Allied planes to riddle the German forces.
Much more occurred between Luedke’s induction and his discharge in early 1946.
He mentioned the ordeals of passage between North America and England. He went to war aboard the Highland Monarch and spent 14 days living on food he bought at the ship’s PX, because the galley was a pit of filth and stench and the food was worse.
“The first morning we were given fish and cooked cabbage for breakfast,” he said.
But the trip was smooth, which kept troubled stomachs from erupting too often. The voyage home was a nightmare in the North Atlantic, notorious for rough seas during winter.
“A couple of days the ship was aimed into wind. The wind was so strong that we didn’t make any headway, just sat still,” he said.
Luedke attended a reunion of his Army outfit for the first time last year in Branson, Mo., and allowed that it probably would be his last.
“There were only 22 of us there,” he said.
“So many have died and all of us are getting old.”
He, at 80, is among the youngest still alive and one of the few working as vigorously as he does.
“Quit? One of these days, I guess,” he said. “I can see the writing on the wall. But I feel good. If I didn’t I would quit. I just can’t sit around and do nothing.”
Since 1957 Luedke has built homes and done all sorts of home repairs, maintenance and remodeling.
He often has several men working in his crew and during the housing boom of the 1970s, he kept three crews busy, two building homes and a third doing other residential work.
In 1980, when he was 56, Luedke got a real estate broker’s license and two years later he was graduated from auction school in Kansas City, because “I figured I needed to be able to sell homes however they needed to be sold.”
Fresh out of the service, home-building and carpentry weren’t heavy on his mind. He did a little more sheep shearing, but he had no stomach for that as anything more than a tide-him-over venture.
He enrolled at the University of Kansas – education always has been a priority for Luedke – but three months later, with the Lawrence campus crowded with veterans and others, he quit.
“It was too soon after the war for me,” he said.
“I couldn’t keep my mind on business.”
The Santa Fe Railroad beckoned – a dispatcher’s job looked attractive – but after a couple of years the pay scale and an offer from an uncle who owned a lumber yard in Atwood had him in western Kansas. While there, he and Twila, his girlfriend in Colony, were married. Weekend journeys from Atwood to Colony were too tiring and, as any young man would, he preferred to see her more than now and then.
They built a home in Atwood – he already knew materials from working at the lumber yard and learned valuable building skills with the project – and when they sold it for $5,500 more than they had in it, the proverbial light bulb lit in his mind.
But, home construction still hadn’t moved to the front burner.
The Luedkes returned to Colony in 1951. He got a job on a drilling rig and Twila had son Doug. He also enrolled at Lola Junior College – the dream of a college education still flickered – but he quit a semester shy of being graduated. Working eight hours a day in the oil patch and going to school made it difficult for him to stay awake during classes. And his young family needed more than passing attention.
Oilfield work took the Luedkes to Oklahoma, but family life again suffered.
A move to Kansas City, where he got into the home construction business, solved part of that problem and provided a good living.
Then, he and wife Twila decided it would be better for them if he had his own construction business in a town small enough for all in the family – daughter Marcia was born Jan. 19, 1957 – to know their neighbors down the street.
The Luedkes returned to Colony in 1957 and today, when few men his age are working at all much less 40 or more hours a week, Luedke still is building and remodeling homes and doing whatever his customers need done.
His success, he is certain, comes from a simple promise he’s always made to himself.
“I always try to be truthful with people, even when sometimes it’s not what they want to hear,” he said.