Monday, April 19, 2004

World War II veteran shares horrors of war with students

'I try to make it real to them'

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MOUNT WASHINGTON - Clifford Park decided a long time ago there was no point bottling up the memories of the horrors he saw nearly 60 years ago as a 19-year-old soldier in the waning months of the war against Nazi Germany.

WWII veteran Clifford Park holds a photograph of himself from his early US Army days.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
He saw fellow soldiers - friends and comrades - die in agony. He saw the walking skeletons of those who survived a Nazi death camp, and the lifeless bodies of those who did not survive stacked like cordwood by the hundreds inside the prison gates. Towns blasted into rubble, and endless processions of refugees trying to escape the violence.

It was a lot for one young man from Cincinnati, only a year removed from a classroom at Withrow High School.

"My world changed very quickly," says the 78-year-old Mount Washington man, who next month will go to Washington, D.C., to join tens of thousands of his fellow World War II veterans for the dedication of a national memorial to the 16 million who served and the 400,000 who lost their lives.

Unlike many World War II veterans who only reluctantly summon up the most disturbing memories of their service 60 years ago, Park talks frequently about his experiences and those of the unit in which he served - the 104th Infantry Division, known as the Timberwolf Division.

But it's who he talks to that, to Park, is most important - young people, high school and college students young enough to be his grandchildren.

Retired now, he is a frequent guest speaker at area high schools and college classrooms, a piece of living history for young people. At Hebrew Union College's Center for Holocaust & Humanity Education, he is one of the concentration camp liberators called on from time to time to talk to groups of students touring the Mapping Our Tears exhibit that chronicles the stories of European Jews oppressed by the Nazi regime.

"I try to make it real to them; I try to tell them what it was like," Park says. Sitting in the living room of his apartment, he flips through a file folder full of photos from Mittelbau Dora, the concentration camp in Nordhausen, Germany, that the Timberwolf soldiers liberated in April 1945.

Thousands died at Mittelbau Dora, many of them Russian and Polish slave laborers, Jewish and non-Jewish, who toiled underground digging tunnels for the Nazis' secret rocket program.

"They know about Iraq, they know what happened with Saddam Hussein," Park says, "but they have no idea the magnitude of what happened in World War II. They have nothing to compare it to."

In late 1944, when he was just 18, Park was not unlike those young people he talks to today. He had two older brothers already in the service - one serving as an Army officer in France and the other in the Army Air Corps in Italy - and he, too, enlisted soon after high school graduation.

By early 1945, he found himself among the thousands of replacement troops rushed to Europe after Allied forces were decimated by the Battle of the Bulge. He pushed across France and Holland and into Germany with the Timberwolves.

Palm Sunday 1945 was a day he will never forget. The young corporal's squad had taken over a house in a small German village, sending the old man who lived there and his granddaughter into the basement.

Early that morning, the old man got out of the basement and grabbed a bazooka lying next to some still dozing soldiers and fired. The grenade tore the house apart, killing two of the soldiers instantly and wounding Park in the leg and head.

"The room was filled with plaster falling; I remember getting up and seeing one guy laying in the front of the room, with his leg way over on the other side of the room," Park says. "It was pretty bad."

Park ended up being evacuated to an Army hospital south of Paris to recuperate. He rejoined his unit at Nordhausen in April, just after the Timberwolves had liberated the camp, finding about 5,000 corpses and many prisoners who were nearly starved to death.

"They looked like little kids playing dress-up, the way their clothes just hung off of them," Park said of the camp survivors he encountered at Nordhausen. "They were nothing but skin and bones. Grown men who weighed 75, 80 pounds. Seeing men in that condition sticks with you."

Today, Park tells these stories and more to young people. Often, he said, they ask if war is like what they see in the movies.

"I tell them it's nothing like that," Park says. "It's not John Wayne standing up firing 150 rounds at once and walking away without a scratch. First of all, you don't stand up in combat. If you do, you're dead."

At 78, Park is among the youngest of those who served in World War II; most are well into their 80s now.

"I am going to do this as long as I can, as long as I can get up and get around," Park says of his work with young people. "It's a story that needs to be told."

WWII Memorial: The Veterans' Pilgrimage

On Memorial Day weekend, the National World War II Memorial will be dedicated in Washington, D.C. This is the second of seven Enquirer profiles of local veterans who served their country during World War II.



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