For some veterans, talking about their war experience can dredge up old memories they’d rather just forget. R.J. “Jay” Warren Sr., 91, is one such veteran. Just 17 when he joined the military, Warren’s experience during World War II left him with many impressions — most of which he prefers to forget.
Warren was born in Hedley, in West Texas, the baby in a family of 10 siblings. His father was a sharecropper, so the family moved from time to time. He lived near Lubbock for 12 years, followed by moves to Morton and then Marshall, where he joined the U.S. Army in 1943.
He took basic training at the newly opened Camp Fannin. “My barrack was right in the middle of a rose garden,” Warren recalled. “I was a BAR man (Browning Automatic Rifle). Twenty rounds, 20 pounds, and it fired from a sling position.”
This was followed by five months of specialized training, including in hand-to-hand combat, at Fort Ord, California. Finally, he was assigned to the 103rd Infantry as it prepared for its European campaign.
There was action from the get-go. A destroyer escorting the troop ship was hit by a torpedo and sunk near Le Havre, France. “I got scared. I was scared until the war was over,” Warren said.
Warren called it his “baptism under fire:” “I had slipped up to the deck to sneak a smoke and saw it happen,” he said. After rescuing people, the ship held some 2,000 troops, making for tight quarters.
D-Day came and went
For Warren, dates and times are sometimes confusing after 74 years, but he remembers participating in three or four major campaigns: Battle of the Hedgerows (or Normandy invasion), Battle of the Bulge and the push from the Ruhr to the Rhine. “That’s when it got heavy,” he said. “I didn’t make it on D-Day,” he said. “I made it four days later.” He eventually served in campaigns from France to Wels, Austria, and was attached for a time to Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army.
During his travels, there were things Warren clearly wished he never saw, such as the first concentration camp they came upon, Buchenwald, which at its height housed some 86,000 people by early 1945. The forced labor camp was among the largest in Germany; it had about 130 satellite and extension units.
It’s evident that memories are still painful for him today. “A lot of what I went through I don’t talk about,” Warren said. “The biggest part of what we went through … a human shouldn’t have been put there.”
Warren also was present when they liberated a POW camp, Stalag 19, which housed an estimated 300 American and 700 English prisoners, he said.
He spent his remaining months of his time overseas in Nuremberg, Germany, where he was assigned to the Nuremberg trials as a bodyguard to an interpreter, Helga Weissmuller, the niece of Johnny Weissmuller. The Allied powers of the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union headed hearings of Nazi criminals, including 12 of whom were sentenced to death, reports indicate.
After spending time with Weissmuller, they grew close, and Warren and Helga married. Together, they had a son. Tragically, his wife was killed in a traffic accident. Helga’s twin sister took the boy and raised him, but Warren later became a part of his son’s life, from the time the boy was 12 years old until he shipped out to Vietnam, where he was killed in action.
After a long stint away from home, on Nov. 22, 1947, he was honorably discharged after serving four years, three months and 18 days. He returned to Marshall and worked for about a year in the oil fields.
In 1949, he moved to Waco and went to work for the city. Twenty-eight years later, he left Waco and went to Fort Worth, where he worked for Laidlaw Waste System for 12 years. “My retirement party was at Billy Bob’s,” Warren recalled, laughing.
The love bug strikes again
Love struck again, and on Nov. 21, 1986, he married Betty Wallace; they’ve been married 31 years now. “We got married on that day so we could go deer hunting together,” Warren said.
Today, he has mixed emotions about his time in the military. Partly proud of his country, partly saddened about the killing, he was reluctant to think about serving again: “If it came to it to keep them from coming to this country, yes, I think I would serve again,” he said.
His advice to others?
“Be proud of your country. Be proud of your family. And worship God,” Warren said.
Good advice for anyone to live by.