ORVILLE MARNOCHA AND WWII
With Veterans Day coming up on November 11, the Seymour Community Historical Society would like to invite area residents to visit the museum to see the exhibit honoring those who have served in the military. Many families of veterans have donated items to the museum in memory of their loved ones. In addition to clothing and military related items, the museum archives contain a number of articles written about area service men and women.
According to the plaque on display at the museum, 154 graduates of Seymour High School served in WWII. The following article is an edited version of an interview that Mary Jo Blohm had with her father Orville Marnocha in July 1987. Orville fought in Italy and Greece. The excerpts of the interview provide the reader with a first person account of the hardships faced by area servicemen and women. The complete interview is available at the museum.
War was declared in Europe when Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. With Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy becoming more aggressive in Europe and continual threats to the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. It created the country's first peacetime draft and formally established the Selective Service System as an independent Federal agency.
I received my draft notice on July 16, 1941, five months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. All the area men drafted met in Appleton and boarded a train for Camp Grant, IL for a final physical. After that, we completed basic training in Illinois and then I was assigned to a base in Milwaukee. Since Milwaukee had a large German population, my job was to work undercover and go into bars to listen for anti-American information.
Eventually I was sent to Newport News, Virginia where I boarded a troop ship. We left port without being told of our destination. We assumed we were headed for Europe. The troop ship wasn’t very comfortable. The bunks were about four feet high and extremely crowded. The heat was terrific. We were allowed to go up on deck for fresh air for about two hours and then another group would come up. All lights were off and there was no ventilation below deck.
We had a chance to go to confession on the ship with priests. Not all spoke English. They had chairs right where everyone was walking. We just knelt down and went – no one laughed.
Arriving in Italy
Our first stop was Naples, Italy and from there we moved to a tent city in Rome. I was a Staff Sergeant and was put in charge of a unit of about twelve men. By mid 1943 Rome was in Allied control, but there was still some support for Mussolini and we were in charge of keeping order. We were told to shoot to kill if anyone challenged our authority.
Meeting the Pope
While in Italy, my friend Ambrose Skibinski and I walked around the Vatican and one of the Swiss guards asked if we would like to see Pope Pius XII. The Pope signed his name on a holy card and blessed my rosary. I still have both. Skip and I went through the whole coliseum. We felt eerie walking where the Christians were kept and the battles took place.
This was around the end of 1943.
Adventure in Greece
From Italy we boarded a plane to Greece to help liberate the country from the Germans. The airport where we were supposed to land was under attack and we were forced to northern Greece where the English controlled an airstrip. It was in the hills and we didn’t know where we were. After awhile we caught up with some English vehicles that were moving out because the Germans were moving in. We were sent to help the English, but they were understaffed and didn’t have much to eat. We finally got an old water truck started and the twelve men hung on as we followed the English. There was much small arms fighting as we ran a blockade into Athens.
We made it into Athens and found a building with an American flag. Inside was a one star American General. I showed him our orders. He sent us to an empty building with bare floors where we regrouped. There was fighting all around. We were hungry, but there wasn’t any food anywhere. When the building got bombed we moved to another one. I remember looking out the window and thought a fly landed on my hair. I looked behind me and there was a bullet hole in the wall. The bullet grazed my hair. We were fortunate to survive.
Another close call was when we spotted a wine shop down the street and when it got dark several of us decided it would taste awful good. We made a dash for the wine and each of us was running with three bottles in each hand. The Germans spotted us and opened fire. When we returned, all we had left was the necks of the broken bottles. It was amazing that no one was wounded.
Helping the Greeks
The U. S. Military was sending more officers and men to build up their forces. We could only get British broadcasting on our radios. They insisted that no Americans were involved in the fighting in Greece. Italian and German soldiers, who were lost or deserted, were hiding in the hills in Greece. They would surrendered to the Americans because they knew they would be treated better than if they turned themselves in to anyone else.
I remember when we went through an underground train route to central Athens. We came out on a large public square. We ran through the square with no problem, but when we reached the other side a captain told me that he left his briefcase on the other side. He ordered me to go get it. I said, “Now?” He said, “Yes, and that is an order.” I got across OK and found the case, but on the way back German machine guns started. Bullets were hitting iron lampposts and all around me. Don’t ask me how I made it. Somebody was with me, so much for officers!
The Communists were also in Greece fighting against pro democracy forces. The Communist forces were in the hills and they would round up the Greek people and weed out what they wanted and torture and shoot the rest. At night you could hear the women screaming in the hills.
The fighting got so bad that eventually we were forced to evacuate. I was ordered to stay behind and make sure everything was loaded on the trucks. I was hiding in a building when the Communists knocked a hole in the wall and came barging in. The Americans were supposed to be neutral in the civil war that was raging between pro-democratic and communist forces. I had an American flag on my jacket and said “Don’t shoot.” Just then, another man came running through the hole and asked what we were doing there. He told us he was an American “Secret Agent” and he told us to “take off.” Eventually British control was restored and the Greek army cleared out the Communists.
By mid 1944, Athens was free, and French and British nightclubs opened up. The entertainers had “go-fers” who would circulate in the audience and talk to soldiers about meeting the stars. Possibly because of my rank and ribbons, I was approached. I told her I didn’t have the time. I didn’t want to get involved because all they wanted was cigarettes, blankets, food, etc. I just wanted to come home.
I would receive mail form home occasionally. During the war, the government would take a regular letter, censor and shrink it, and then mail it. When the war was almost over I was sent to Switzerland for a rest. Then it was back to Greece until my time was up. I was in Greece about 1½ to 2 years. I left for the United States in 1945. Overall, I was in service 4 years and 21 days.