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Wartime nightmare became real

  • CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS Ed Mantz with the medals he earned during his military service during World War II.
    CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS Ed Mantz with the medals he earned during his military service during World War II.
Published May 28. 2010 05:00PM

It's a freezing February night in 1945, and a scared kid from West Penn Township is on patrol, tramping through the snowy woods in enemy territory in war-torn Germany.

Suddenly, a German voice commands him to halt and give the password.

The kid, 18-year-old Edwin "Peewee" Mantz, had been drafted into the Army to fight in World War II. He's worlds from home, his feet are cold and wet in his leather combat boots, and his worst nightmare has just come real.

Before the first thin, gray light of dawn begins filtering through the trees, the terrified farm boy will have found the courage to fight back under machine gunfire, killing three Nazi soldiers and capturing another 14.

Now, a lifetime later, Mantz sits at the kitchen table of his tidy Coaldale home, a home he shared for 58 years with his late wife Lillian. His bright smile fades as he mentions her death four years ago.

Mantz gently arranges fading, yellow documents for a visitor to read as he recalls his journey from his family farm along the Ridge Cup to the German battlefield where his bravery earned him a Silver Star for gallantry in action against an enemy.

He was drafted into the Army soon after turning 18 on April 30, 1945.

After basic training, he came home for a 15-day furlough before heading to Camp Shanks, New York. From there, his unit sailed to England, they crossed the Channel to France, then "We walked right into the Battle of the Bulge," he says.

The Bulge was the Nazis' last ditch effort to stop the Allies as they forged into Germany. Fought over the winter of 1944-45 near the German-Belgium border, the Battle of the Bulge was the largest land-battle of the war.

"It was winter time, it was in January," he recalls. "Snow was about 10-12 inches deep. We didn't get any (winter boots) until about a month later. we had combat boots that's all-leather ones. Feet were always cold."

The relentless cold and damp weren't the worst of it.

"I was scared all the time," he says quietly. "The snipers, mostly. They had snipers in the trees."

It wasn't long after his commanding officer heard him talking to German prisoners of war in their native language that Mantz' fluency became pivotal in the events that were to unfold.

"Our lieutenant heard me. And when he found out I could talk to them, he made me a scout. That was the worst job in the whole world," Mantz says. "You would go out at night and look for Germans, and (talk) your way into the German company and come back with a couple of prisoners, most of the time."

One fateful night, "we went down an old log road in the woods. All of a sudden I hear this German soldier holler 'Halt!' I can still hear him," Mantz says. "Then he asked, what's the password?"

Thinking fast, Mantz told the soldier, in German, that he had forgotten it.

"And he believed me," Mantz says.

"Then I ran into this machine gun nest, and I was shivering in my shoes," he says. "And I threw a hand grenade into it. By dumb luck, I hit it right dead center."

So how did it come to be that he was fluent in German?

"Because I'm Dutch," he says, his eyes twinkling.

A fading sheet of paper, brittle with age, tells the story of how Mantz earned his Silver Star on that frigid night in Germany 65 years ago.

"Edwin L. Mantz, Private Co. F, 345th Infantry Regiment, for gallantry in action against an armed enemy of the United States near Auw, Germany, on 6 February, 1945. While acting as a scout for his platoon, Private Mantz was challenged by an enemy sentry. But his fluent knowledge of the German language gave him the opportunity to advance and overpower the enemy soldier.

Then, being fired upon by an enemy machine gun, Private Mantz skillfully made his way toward the position, and threw a hand-grenade into the nest, killing the enemy gunner and two assistants.

Advancing further, he effected the surrender of 14 Nazi riflemen.

"Private Mantz' courage and devotion exemplify the highest traditions of the United States Army, entered military service from Pennsylvania," the narrative says.

The paper, dated 30 May 1945, is signed by Grant Layng, Col. GSC, Chief of Staff.

"And General (George) Patton put the Silver Star on me," Mantz says with pride.

After leaving Europe, Mantz' 87th Division had been scheduled to go to Japan, but, thankfully, the war ended while they home for a brief furlough. Mantz was sent instead to Fort Eustis, Virginia, where, he said, thousands of prisoners of war were being housed.

Because of his fluency in German, Mantz was assigned to glean as much information from them as he could before they were shipped home.

"We used to take about 50 or 100 at a time, put them on a train, take them to New York, and put them on a boat. They never gave us any trouble because they were glad to go home," he says.

From Fort Eustis, he went to Fort Meade, Maryland. There, he was surprised to see his brother, Elwood, a new recruit among the men who were there to learn what to expect of military life.

He was discharged soon after. By then, it was 1948, and Mantz had returned home to West Penn, where he married Lillian, moved to Coaldale and became a road construction worker.

In his long, cold tour of duty, Mantz earned, in addition to the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, a combat infantry badge, a Presidential Citation, a Good Conduct Medal, three battle stars, a commendation letter from then-President Harry Truman and a certificate from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in honor of his military service.

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