War memories linger for decorated Moffat County veteran
October 23, 2011
The time: the beginning of World War II, about 1941.
The place: a North African shore.
A young man crawls under a tangle of wire in the dead of night, carrying two sticks of dynamite, each 3 inches thick.
He is a soldier, one of the millions who took up arms in a world war that stretched from the shores of Europe to the waters of the Pacific.
Carefully, quietly, he places one stick on either side of a concrete structure where German troops sleep inside.
Then, he scrambles back under the wire and sets off the explosives.
In an instant, the concrete box becomes a death trap for the men sleeping inside. The boy runs for his life, where his comrades wait, machine guns ready, for the enemy fire they know will follow.
This is a job always given to the youngest soldiers, the lithe and the quick.
"They could move, especially when they was scared," says Ray Wagner, 87, of Hamilton.
He knows the perils the young man faced that dark night in the heat of World War II. He also knows the private battle that rages in this boy's heart.
Wagner knows because he was that boy.
Before he was a soldier in the 91st Infantry Division, Wagner was a child scampering over the countryside, gun in hand, near the family farm in Iowa.
There, coon and opossum were as plentiful as the whisky that flowed from bootleg stills dotting the landscape.
Then, the war began.
Whole families — sons, brothers, uncles, fathers — enlisted. Fields once rich with corn and grain lay idle and weed-choked with no men to tend them.
Wagner's family was no exception.
"Even though I was young, I wanted to go," he said of the military. "Everybody else was gone — uncles, cousins — all the whole family had went to the military."
He enlisted in the Army infantry in 1941. He was 17, a year too young to enter the military, but his father fabricated his age and helped him get in.
You see, war ran deep in the Wagner bloodline.
Wagner's father fought as a lieutenant in the cavalry during World War I. His great-grandfather fought in the Civil War.
War wasn't simply a duty in the family — it was tradition.
"They fought every war they could fight — every one there was," Wagner said.
When World War II began, it was expected Wagner would join. Dodging a conflict was not an option.
"We absolutely did not have a relative that would run," Wagner said. "That was just the way the family was.
"If you have to stand up and fight, you stand up and fight."
Wagner's next assignment overseas was in Casablanca, where he spent nearly three months as a sniper.
During his time in the war, Wagner would serve in Italy, Germany and Russia. He would do everything from serving as a sniper in Casablanca to manning a machine gun to clearing landmines.
He saw many men die.
The American forces were "just kids," he said, fighting against troops with years of experience.
"That's where the difference was," he said. "That's the reason we lost so many people."
This is what Wagner recalls from the war: Not the glory but the carnage and the fallen men on both sides of the line.
"They drew a bad picture of the German army," Wagner said. "They made them look like something terrible, but they were men, just like us."
And this was the crux of Wagner's inner conflict.
Wagner's great-grandfather emigrated from Germany, and he knew there were still parts of the family living in the Old Country.
Before he left for the war, his grandfather told him something he would remember for years to come.
"He said, "Don't shoot none of our people,'" Wagner said.
Wagner "always had mixed up thoughts," he said.
Thoughts like, "Was I shooting my cousin?"
In war, there are stories of mercy and bloodshed.
Wagner's story is no different.
Once, in northern Italy, Wagner came across a group of Germans who were crippled by gunshot wounds, their limbs rotting. He and his squad carried all of them to where they could get medical attention
"Every one of them lived," he said.
There was an encounter in Italy that did not end this way.
Wagner and six men attempted to ambush a German patrol.
All of his men were killed.
He earned an array of awards during his time in the service — three Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts and a Presidential Citation of Valor — but he rejected the Silver Star he was offered for this incident.
"I had no right to (it) because I was just exactly like the rest of them," he said. "We all should have got it. But, no one but me was alive, so I refused."
After the war, Wagner would eventually settle in Craig, where he would establish Wagner Construction, the company now owned by his son, Jay.
Wagner is an old man now. His sun-weathered face is creased with deep wrinkles that spread when he smiles, which is often, and his blue eyes are milky with age.
Yet even in his twilight years, he still thinks about the military.
And he's dogged by a question: Why did he and others go to war? For what purpose, to what end?
With the exception of the threat posed by Hitler, "I can't understand why the war was even fought," he said.
But, there's one thing Wagner is sure of now.
"People wasn't bred to kill," he said.