Bob Persinger never forgets the look of gratitude on the faces of the people he freed from Nazi prison camps. In fact, he still corresponds with some of them. Robert Randall Ryder introduces a man who learned that fear was “part of the game.”
Veterans Day has a special meaning for World War II veteran and Rockford resident Bob Persinger. He served as a Staff Sergeant and tank commander in an Army reconnaissance regiment that helped liberate France and Germany from the Nazis in the last years of the war. He found out first-hand how high the price of freedom can be on cold, winter’s day in early 1945 when his unit came under a brutal attack behind enemy lines in Germany.
“One day we lost five medium tanks from our unit [along with most of their crews] in five minutes,” Persinger remembers. “It took place in Germany in an open field near some woods just outside a small village. We had reports from our air reconnaissance that nothing was there… but when we got within 100 yards of those woods, the Germans opened up with their 88 millimeter ground-mounted guns. Nothing but their gun muzzles were showing.”
“Once they opened up on us, five of our tanks were gone just like that,” says Persinger. “We had a total of 16 tanks in that unit and we lost 5 of them that day. It shook up our unit real bad. Afterwards, we had to regroup.”
This was the toughest battle of the war for Persinger, a farm boy born in Weaver, Ohio on Sept. 23, 1923. He was the second of five children born to Charles and Lucille, hardworking farming parents who taught him strong values.
“It was great being born and raised on a farm,” Persinger recalls. “I liked being on the farm. I had farm chores. I milked the cows. I liked horses. I was 9 years old when my father put me on a tractor and taught me how to plow. I was just a farm boy. That was all I knew.”
But hard times hit his family in 1933, when the Great Depression took a devastating toll. “We lost our 160-acre farm,” Persinger recalls with sadness. “We went through a lot of hard times. I remember it.”
Life became even more difficult, in 1939, when Persinger’s father suddenly died. “My two brothers and I continued to work the farm we were renting. We carried on just as if my Dad were alive,” he recalls.
Persinger’s life, along with millions of others, was about to change as World War II began to devastate much of Europe and Asia. When Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. entered the war. Sixteen months later, Persinger was drafted into the U.S. Army; a few months after that he was on his way to basic training at Camp Gordon, Ga.
After attending tank maintenance school, Persinger was assigned to the Army’s 3rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Regiment – a unit of 1,500 soldiers tasked with the highly dangerous mission of finding the enemy. His regiment’s nickname was “The Ghost Troopers.”
“The cavalry was the eyes and ears of the Army,” Persinger explains. “We went out ahead of our troops and found the enemy … As a reconnaissance unit, we were behind the German lines most of the time. Our goal was to remain undetected by the Germans and get the information back to our commanders.”
Persinger was assigned to an M-3 Stuart light tank crew. He started out as a tank driver and was gradually promoted to Corporal, Sergeant, and finally tank commander and Platoon Sgt. at the same time. As a Platoon Sgt., he was in charge of an entire unit of light tanks.
Learning how to drive a tank came easy to Persinger, thanks to his many years of farm work. “Being raised on a farm and having driven a tractor, it wasn’t that much different,” he says.
Persinger first saw combat in August of 1944, when his regiment landed in France, two months after the historic Normandy D-Day invasion of Europe. His 3rd Reconnaissance Regiment helped to push the Germans out of France, liberate Paris, and move into Germany; his regiment even fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Despite months of intense training and preparation, Persinger’s unit was at a distinct disadvantage when taking on the German forces in combat. The harsh reality was that the German tanks were far superior to any of the American tanks, especially the M-3 Stuart light tanks Persinger and his fellow 3rd Reconnaissance soldiers were using.
“The German tanks were just much better,” says Persinger. “They were much better armored, especially their Panther and Tiger Tanks.”
Early in 1945, Persinger’s unit got some good news: The Army would be replacing its outdated and highly vulnerable M-3 Stuart light tanks with the recently developed and better-equipped M-24 Chaffee medium tank.
“It was a big upgrade,” Persinger says. “The Chaffee had a 75 millimeter gun, a big improvement from the Stuart’s 37 millimeter. With the 37 millimeter, you can’t do too much. But with the 75 millimeter, we had good high explosive shells and armored piercing shells. It was a great tank!”
Even with that upgrade, the American tanks were no match for the Germans. That was so much the case that Persinger’s unit was ordered to by-pass any German tank that couldn’t be knocked out.
Despite those orders, Persinger was wounded in combat while standing guard in Nazi Germany one spring night in 1945. The incident took place just outside a small German village. His tank crew slept while he stood guard in the turret of his tank, his head and upper body exposed as he manned a .50 caliber machine gun.
“That night an enemy patrol came out and found our tank,” he says. “They fired a bazooka shot [a shoulder-fired anti-tank rocket] that just missed our tank, went over my head and hit the brick building next to us. The building blew up and shrapnel went flying everywhere. The explosion caused some of the building to fall down and I was hit and wounded in the side by the debris.”
His wounds were not serious enough to require extensive medical care, but they were serious enough to earn him a Purple Heart Medal for being wounded in combat.
That incident wasn’t the only combat Persinger saw in Europe. He participated in night patrols 29 times. During such patrols, he and his crew members dismounted from their tanks and carried out missions on foot.
“At night, the Germans would send out patrols,” explains Persinger. “We would ambush them with the goal of always getting a prisoner. One night, in late winter of 1945, we ambushed a patrol of eight Germans and we captured one. None of us were injured. It was terrible, and we were scared quite often, but that was just part of the game.”
For his actions in helping capture the German soldier, Persinger was awarded the Bronze Star.
Between episodes of intense combat, Persinger occasionally enjoyed himself. He understood that he was witnessing history in the making. One of those occasions was when he came within a few feet of General George Patton, one of the Army’s best and most controversial Generals. Patton was known for his self-promotion and his “blood and guts” approach to defeating the German Army.
“I thought he was the best,” says Persinger. “He was a man who wanted to win the war and get back home. I really respected him. Some thought he was a ‘glory hound.’ Some guys didn’t respect him. I thought he was for winning the war and saving lives and moving fast. I think he believed if you kept moving quickly, you would get the war over with quicker.”
For Persinger and the rest of the soldiers of the 3rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Regiment, the war couldn’t end soon enough. His unit suffered 82 percent casualties. That means more than eight out of 10 soldiers in his unit ended up killed or wounded during their time in Europe.
“We were best buddies,” remembers Persinger. “Not only inside my tank crew but also with the other tank crews. We had many a tank knocked out and men were killed. A lot of fellows – they were killed or wounded so quickly, I never even got to know them.”
To this day, Persinger often thinks about the sacrifice his fellow soldiers made, especially as Veterans Day nears. With fewer and fewer World War II veterans left to tell their stories, he hopes today’s youth will not forget what these veterans accomplished.
“It’s really important to bring their sacrifices up to people and let them know this was a serious thing,” he says. “A lot of our young people have no idea. A lot of men fought and lost their lives to save this country and it is very important for this to be brought out.”
When the war ended, Persinger’s unit was at the Ebensee concentration camp in Austria, near the Swiss Alps. His unit helped to liberate 15,000 starving prisoners from impending death.
“The prisoners were just skin and bones – a terrible sight,” Persinger recalls. “They were so very thankful. They were so thrilled and so tickled. They were celebrating just to see Americans and to see that beautiful white star on our tanks. Some of them were in tears, they were so glad. I remember that more than anything. They were so glad they were free.”
To this day, Persinger stays in touch with about a dozen of those concentration camp prisoners he helped to rescue.
Persinger was discharged from the Army on Oct. 29, 1945. He headed home to help his mother, and his family made its way to Marengo, Ill. He returned to farming, for a while, before trying his hand at a number of jobs. He worked as a machinist and carpenter; He also delivered fuel to farmers in their fields.
It was while he was working one of these jobs that Persinger met his wife, Arlene. They celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary this autumn, on Oct. 7. They’re very proud of the three children their marriage produced.
Bob retired in 1985 and leads a quiet, happy life with Arlene at a Rockford retirement community. He enjoys woodworking in the basement of his home, playing pool with friends and spending time with his family.
Although it’s been more than 70 years since he fought in World War II, the memories, both good and bad, remain vivid and forever in his mind. With each Veterans Day, Persinger recalls his fallen comrades and hopes they will always be remembered and honored by our country.
“They fought bravely and they fought for this country,” Persinger says. “I don’t think there was a coward in the bunch. A lot of men fought and lost their lives to save this country and it is very important that this is remembered.”
Editor’s note: Author Bob Ryder is a former Marine sergeant who served in Operation Desert Storm overseas in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and was awarded the Joint Service Achievement Medal for his service as a Marine Corps Combat Correspondent and broadcast journalist with the Armed Forces Desert Network. Locals may remember Ryder from his 20-year career as a senior reporter and substitute news anchor for WTVO-TV in Rockford. He currently serves as the Superintendent of the Veterans Assistance Commission of Boone County, a local agency dedicated to helping veterans and their families in need.