Seeing the brutality of man: Grand Lake man recounts harrowing details of WWII
For those born in the post-war era, World War II represents a time of heroes, myths and legends.
But it was both poignant and profound for those who lived through the true horror and grandeur of the immense event, imprinting forever its mark upon their lives.
That everlasting impact still weighs on the mind of Grand Lake resident Charles Truman Illsley, who saw much of the brutality and inhumanity of mankind during his time fighting overseas as part of the U.S. Army.
Illsley returned to Europe in 2015 to visit the Dachau Concentration Camp for the 70th anniversary of its liberation. Following the war, Illsley worked as a guard at the camp, overseeing SS officers held there during the Nuremberg Trials.
While touring the camp two years ago, Illsley met a documentary filmmaker named Eva Stocker. She interviewed Illsley extensively about his time in the war, including his liberation of the Nordhausen Concentration Camp in 1945.
Ninety-one-year-old Illsely traveled last month to Zurich, Switzerland, to take part in a concert event featuring excerpts from the film, which features interviews with Illsley and several survivors of Nazi concentration camps.
The horrors of the Holocaust still linger in the mind of Illsley who is both angered by and contemptuous of those who deny its existence.
“On God’s Bible, the Holocaust happened,” Illsley exclaimed. “I hate hearing people say there was no such thing. I was there.”
Illsley, born in 1925 in Plaistow, N.H., was drafted in 1944 roughly one-month after his 18th birthday. After attending basic training at Fort Stewart, Ga., Illsley shipped out from New York for the European theater on the RMS Mauretania. The troop ship made the dangerous Atlantic crossing without escort vessels and was attacked by a German U-Boat as it reached Liverpool, England.
“I thought I wanted to go,” Illsley said of his feelings as he prepared for war. “My father was in World War I. He fought in France. I thought, if he is a survivor, I can go, too.”
After crossing the English Channel and briefly stopping in Paris, Illsley and the other soldiers of the 60th Infantry Regiment headed north to the front near Hove, Belgium.
He was a combat infantryman during the war and carried a Browning automatic rifle.
“My rifle was bigger than I was,” Illsley laughed. “It had a 20-shot magazine. They were really heavy. I had an ammunition carrier but as we were going through a town one day a sniper went ‘bang, bang, bang.’ The three guys behind me were all shot in the head. I had to carry my own ammo after that.”
Illsley usually carried somewhere around 50 pounds of gear while fighting in the war including his rifle and ammo. “I was 18 going on 19,” he reminisced. “Nothing could stop me. I was always lucky. You had to be cocky. People got killed around me, left and right, but I was never injured during the war.”
During his time overseas, Illsley was repeatedly in the thick of battle and took part in several historic events. He crossed the Rhine River on a pontoon bridge a short distance from the Ludendorff Bridge made famous by the movie, “The Bridge at Remagen.” Illsley had just crossed to the eastern side of the Rhine shortly before the bridge fell.
“There was a big air fight going on above us,” Illsley recalled. “The Luftwaffe was there with Stukas trying to drop bombs on the bridge. Our P-38s were pursuing them.”
From Remagen, Illsley and the American advance continued east, through the German heartland. They eventually reached the Nordhausen Concentration Camp, where prisoners worked as slave laborers to help the Nazis develop rockets. Illsley remembered the soldiers simply blew the lock off the camp’s gate and moved on not long after.
“We couldn’t stay there,” Illsley explained. “We had orders to proceed east. We told them more help was coming behind us, but we just couldn’t stop. It was a slave labor camp, not an extermination camp, so the people there were as bad as some.”
Illsley and his division continued their march east all the way until they reached the River Elbe, where they waited for the Red Army. Illsley still remembers civilians from the east-side of the river trying desperately to escape the advancing Soviets, who would shoot the rafts and flotation devices that the Germans were using to cross the river.
“We saw what was happening and we shot back,” Illsley said “We shot up in the air above the Russians to try and make them stop.”
After victory was reached in Europe May 8, Illsley and the rest of the American military headed southwest to German Bavaria. He would go on to work as a guard at Dachau during the Nuremberg Trials, watching over SS Officers at night. One night, while patrolling one of the prisoner barracks, a man attacked Illsley with a broken bottle, slicing his neck from behind but missing vital arteries.
“I decided, that is it, I don’t need to stay in this place any longer,” he said. “I volunteered for the next thing that came up.”
His new duty was to work as an actor in a military theatre troop, traveling around the American section of post-war Germany performing skits and shows for soldiers.
After nearly three years in Europe, Illsley headed back to the states in September 1947. He went on to attend the University of New Hampshire and received his degree in geology. He followed that up with a geochemistry degree from Penn State University. He was later hired by the Atomic Energy Commission to hunt for uranium throughout the western United States.
After that program was ended, Illsley went to work at Rocky Flats Plant near Denver where he continued to work until his retirement.
Despite being 91 and having ailing health, Illsley can still remember even the smaller details of his services. He lives with those memories each and every day, but retains a sense of pride in knowing his sacrifice for the country was not made in vain.
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