It took decades for Groesbeck resident Rex Hyden to open up and talk about his experiences during World War II. Now 94, he’s still reluctant to talk about it, as there are things he would prefer to forget.
Hyden was born in the tiny community of Box Church, four miles south of Groesbeck. His father was a barber who also farmed, which helped the family survive the Great Depression.
Near the end of high school graduation, he went to live with his grandparents. He worked at a filling station and then with Texas Power & Light. In January 1943, at the age of 19, “they got me,” Hyden said, referring to his draft notice. He was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky for basic training.
Just as he was ready to ship out for overseas duty, his superiors discovered he hadn’t been vaccinated and sent him straight to the infirmary. That evening, while they were cleaning out the barracks in preparation for the Atlantic crossing, “I just couldn’t go any further,” Hyden said. He was sent to the hospital but doesn’t remember it; he had passed out. He remained unconscious for a week due to a severe reaction to the innoculations.
By this time, his group had left for Europe. Hyden was sent to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, to join the 220th Armored Engineer Battalion of the 20th Armored Division with the 7th Army. The 220th arrived in Le Havre, France, in late fall of 1944.
As a private, Hyden “just did what they told me.” His outfit was a replacement division, and as such, didn’t engage in combat, although it was in the thick of the action, armed and ready for battle.
Busy work at the Bulge
The 220th didn’t participate in the Battle of the Bulge. Hyden’s outfit was sent behind the action to cut off the Germans. But by the time they were in position, other American troops had successfully hemmed in the German infantry.
The troops moved across France into Belgium, fighting their way toward Germany, arriving at Ludendorff Bridge — also known as the Bridge at Remagen. His unit wasn’t involved in the capture, he said.
“They sent us down to the river to build a bridge, but we sat there as decoys while another company actually built the bridge,” he said.
Driving a jeep, Hyden would transport officers and once went into a German outpost to pick up soldiers who wanted to surrender. The truck they took was full to the brim with men who would rather surrender to the Americans than to the Russians.
His most unforgettable experience was arriving at the infamous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau which U.S. soldiers liberated in April 1945. Two divisions of the US Seventh Army, the 42nd Rainbow Division and the 45th Thunderbird Division, participated in the action, while the 20th Armored Division provided support.
“I was there when they opened the gate,” he said. “It was sickening to see them (prisoners).” When Hyden backed off from the gate, he went around and saw a railroad track with four or five flat rail cars stacked with countless bodies upon bodies.
“It was terrible — just unbelievable,” he said. “I can’t describe to you how bad. It was just pitiful.” Reports indicate there were an estimated 32,000 prisoners liberated. Approximately 30 rail cars were loaded with bodies.
Suddenly, war was over
In July 1945, Hyden left for the States, landing in Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. He was on furlough, scheduled to be deployed to Japan. But the dropping of the atomic bombs changed everything. He was discharged on Feb. 13, 1946, after serving three years and one month. He was offered a promotion but turned it down. “All I wanted was to get out of there.”
While on furlough, Hyden met Mary C. “Cappie” Webb, whom he married on April 8, 1946. They’ve now been married over 71 years and have three children, six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Back in Texas, Hyden worked as a roughneck for several oil companies, including Sun Oil Co. He retired in 1984.
Although he never saw combat, the war left indelible scars on his psyche. For the first few weeks he was home, he couldn’t sleep in the house, preferring to sleep outside on the ground. He also had trouble eating.
Hyden can’t help but think about the war today. “You never get over it. I’ve just tried to erase it,” he said. “I didn’t like it, but I was proud that I served. I just hope it never happens again.”