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‘It was a lot of chaos’

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
May 24, 2009
— Thousands of miles and 65 years separate the World War II combat engineer from Dachau.

But Hubert Fosbinder still worries that he’ll be arrested for smuggling from Germany a half-dozen small photos he took at the death camp.


Today, Fosbinder lives with his grandniece Barbara Conway and her husband, Peter, in Janesville. At 99, he is one of the oldest living World War II veterans.


No, he didn’t take the pictures, Fosbinder tells a reporter visiting to hear his war story. He bought them from someone, he says.


Regardless, the terror of Dachau is there in black and white on the kitchen table, sitting alongside a German helmet, SS insignias, clippings from the war and a crucifix looted from a German home.


Fosbinder carried his little box camera with him through Europe, documenting the antics of he and his buddies at training camp; the tanks and guns of war; the bridges they built and heavy equipment they drove; the landmarks of Rome; the foreign cities they visited; and the locals they met.


In Germany, the photos take a black turn.


One shows a pile of skeletal, naked bodies. Another shows Jews killed by the Germans just before the camp was liberated. Another shows German guards killed by Americans and thrown into railroad cars the Germans had used to deliver prisoners to the death camp.


Conway tries to convince Fosbinder he doesn’t need to worry—no one is going to come after an old man today.


Later, Fosbinder again tells the true story to Conway—that he snapped the photographs at the death camp and had them smuggled out and mailed to his wife through the French underground.


Despite the warmth of a recent spring day, Fosbinder has a red blanket pulled up under his arms. He wears glasses, but macular degeneration makes the glasses almost useless. On a side table is a World War II DVD and a Tony Bennett CD.


When asked about his war experiences, Fosbinder slowly circles his thumbs, lost in his thoughts. He doesn’t need good eyes to see the events play out again.


Fosbinder was born in Mauston and joined the National Guard in 1927. He was 17. He had quit high school to care for his brothers after his mother died. He met his wife, Doris VanWormer, at Eddie’s Nightclub in Wisconsin Dells where he played saxophone.


Fosbinder married in 1940 and was drafted in 1941. He was 32.


Fosbinder trained as a member of the 48th Engineer Combat Battalion and was a bridge builder. The war took him to Africa, Italy, France and Germany. He touched the pope’s hand when troops finally pushed through Cassino into Rome. He survived a bout with pneumonia, guarded Hitler’s hideaway and was at Dachau shortly after the death camp was liberated.


“I was all over when the important stuff happened,” he says.


“He WAS the important stuff,” Conway adds.


Conway has known Fosbinder for 27 years, has attended reunions of the 48th with Fosbinder and has heard his stories before. He often helps fill them in.


Fosbinder’s unit maintained the roads and water crossings that moved the stuff of war. Some bridges were too narrow and had to be torn down or another had to be built alongside. He was always in the front line, paving the way forward.


The bridges were transported in sections, assembled and pushed forward. With “some Jerries on the other side,” it was sometimes tough to set the opposite embankment.


Fosbinder remembers working in rain that cascaded off a mountain onto the road. The troops dug ditches to divert the water as the men were shelled from above.


“The Germans were on the top, and we were on the bottom, like always,” the former supply sergeant says.


He whistles through his teeth, mimicking the sound of incoming shells.


Sometimes, Fosbinder has trouble remembering the names of the towns and villages and campaigns and bridges. But he has no trouble remembering the name of the man who cost his company their liquor trucks.


The company found a stash of fine liquor in a cave in a small French town near the German border. The men kept the booze in three trucks, rationing out three bottles per platoon per week.


“Headquarters didn’t know we had a whole truckload of whiskey stacked in our parking lot until the 3rd Platoon—this guy by the name of Obar—he got ahold of a bottle and tried to drink it all. He raised so much hell.”


The confiscated liquor was confiscated.


In Marseille, France, Fosbinder recalls that the troops got no land resistance when they landed. But an incident still haunts him today.


“I still can’t figure it out,” he says. “The Americans had six ships in the harbor. This plane flew right in like that, and when it got close enough, we knew he was German. But we never fired a shot.


“And then he released a (bomb), and we had one ship that had heavy engineering equipment, like guns and stuff like that, and he landed that shell right on that one ship, right in the middle of everything. They never fired a shot at him. And he turned around and flew out. Why? Nobody seems to know why they didn’t shoot at him. Why? Why?”


Fosbinder talks of being at the airport in Wiesloch, Germany, where thousands of enemy soldiers surrendered at a time and the pile of weapons they relinquished grew as high as a house. He was among the troops guarding Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden from looters.


Other times, though, Fosbinder sinks into silence.


Later, he tells Conway what he was thinking: of the French Moroccan soldiers assigned to his unit. They rode horses and were paid according to the number of ears cut from enemy soldiers they killed.


Or of the New Zealanders who were issued rifles but preferred their machetes. They sneaked out at night, beheading enemy soldier, and spent their days sharpening their blades.


“He didn’t know if he should talk about those things,” Conway says.


And then there was Dachau.


Fosbinder saw the railroad cars and the railroad track. He saw the gas chamber that looked like shower stalls.


He saw the bodies.


Fosbinder holds one of the tiny square pictures close to his eye.


“There was a lot of chaos,” he recalls.


He says the prisoners who were still strong enough killed the German guards pictured in the railway car.


But Conway says the men in Fosbinder’s unit killed the guards. It was there that Fosbinder took the helmet off a dead German and the SS insignias.


Fosbinder sailed back to America in a stateroom on the Queen Mary in 1945.


For years, he and his wife kept the war souvenirs hidden away in their Beloit home. Doris died in 2004. The Conways found the items when they moved Fosbinder to Janesville shortly after.


“There were a couple of times when I didn’t think I’d make it back home,” Fosbinder says. “You used to dream about it. I don’t anymore that I can remember.”


But Conway says he often hears the old man talking, rambling in his sleep.



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