FREDERICKTOWN — Over 50 years ago, life was altogether different. World War II raged on, and men and women from the United States dedicated their lives to the cause of peace and freedom.
John Zolman, now 90 years old, grew up in Morrow County and graduated from Johnsville High School in 1938. In November 1940, he married Dortha Shira of Fredericktown, and on Feb. 26, 1941, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
“I shouldn’t have been drafted; I was married and they weren’t taking married men yet,” he said. “But Dad and the president of the draft board were suing over a horse deal, and my father made him mad, so he put me in the service.”
No matter how Zolman got into the military, he knew without a doubt he wanted to protect his country.
“It was pretty rewarding coming back home because so many of us didn’t come back. For the country, we all felt we wanted to protect her. We said we will probably never come back but we are going to try — that’s the attitude we had,” said Zolman.
Zolman did his training at Fort Stevens, Ore., and when his officer asked what he wanted to do, he said, “I don’t want infantry because I got a bad leg. So [the officer] said what’s the next best? I think I’d like heavy artillery, and that’s what I got.”
During his service, he traveled from Oregon to Washington, California, Kentucky, Indiana, Oklahoma and Texas. But during the last eight months of his service, in France and Germany, he found himself in the heat of battle.
“I wasn’t over there for as long as some of them were, but I saw a lot of bad stuff,” said Zolman. “We traveled everywhere, I can’t think of all the places. But we were in Le Thor, France, and we did a lot of movement in France.”
Zolman was chief of his section in Unit 767 Heavy Field Artillery, a 13-man gun crew. He was also equipment manager and truck driver for his outfit.
Zolman said he knew God was watching over him when he was over there, because three times he was seriously wounded and each time he made it out.
“I was chief of section and the Germans were firing on us with small arms, and we had to get out of there quick,” said Zolman. “So I was pushing this tractor driver when I fell over a bank. I landed down in the riverbed and broke my back. I laid there over night until the next morning, when they started looking for me.
“I crawled into a washed-out area because I knew the Germans were coming through that night, and I tore all my nails loose digging back because I had broke my back. I would scoot a little bit and then I didn’t move. At night you could hear a pin dropping; I heard [the Germans] coming, they were walking right by me to get back to their outfit.”
Zolman said he prayed hard that night, and prayed that he wouldn’t sneeze or do anything that would draw attention to his location.
“The next morning [my unit] was howling for me but I didn’t answer until I was sure it was us and not the Germans,” he said. “They carried me out on a board and I was in the field hospital for 15 weeks.”
“God was surely with him,” said Dortha. “And, thank God, they had the best doctors over there.”
“We had it pretty rough,” said Zolman.
Another injury occurred when he and his regiment was under heavy gun fire. A piece of metal got lodged into his lower backside.
“So many people were getting hurt, I carried that piece of steel around for about a week before the doctor could see me. ... It was a piece of steel about the size of that,” he said, indicating a small portion of his index finger for size. “But they had to get it out with a pair of tongs, and oh, boy could you hear me for 10 miles.”
When Zolman and his comrades were hit again by a sniper fire, he had an injury to his upper right arm.
“Then after that, another sniper shot at me when I was in a weapons carrier. I was taking men out to guard duty when this sniper started shooting at me. So I pulled up on a bridge and I told everyone to hit the deck quick and get off of the bridge. While they were going, a shell came down through the steering wheel, and as I took off to get underneath the bridge [the sniper] shoot my heel off,” said Zolman.
Zolman was in charge of the equipment upkeep and the handling of the 155 mm howitzer M-1. In times of heavy firing, under hard combat, Zolman had no choice but to move fast and throw the heavy projectiles into the howitzer to keep up with the fighting.
“We were in such hot flash that this big Swede and I took turns. He would grab one up and throw it in by hand, it would fire and by that time I would be there throwing another in by hand,” he said. “You can do just about anything when you’re scared.”
Although Zolman met with many prisoners of war, one unexpected event brought him face to face with a stranded German soldier.
“You see, we got caught in a place where no one knew where we were at, so I took my men to stay at a barn overnight,” he said. “And it was just so quiet all night long and there was a loft in the barn; I saw something move up there. So I pointed my rifle up there and I hollered, a man jumped up and shouted ‘Don’t shoot’ [in German].”
When the war was coming to an end, Zolman said many of the German soldiers didn’t want to fight.
“Many of the guys we found hiding in any place and when they saw us coming, they just threw up their hands [in surrender] — they didn’t want to fight,” he said.
During his time in the service, Zolman said he saw the many different sides of war, but his most liberating experience was when he helped to free four Nazi concentration camps.
“The big one was Auschwitz, and the people there were so weak from hunger and when they saw us they could do nothing but hold up their hands and smile because they were so weak,” said Zolman. “It was a shame, they were so badly abused. When the war ended it took everyone they could get to help liberate the concentration camps. I carried one guy — he was nothing but skin and bones, and mold in his beard, his hair was long. He said at one time he was 190 pounds, but I bet he didn’t weigh more than 70 pounds at the time.”
Zolman served in the Army for four years and eight months. When he was honorably discharged, he came back to Ohio and settled in Fredericktown with Dortha. His service to his country earned him three Purple Hearts and 31 medals, and many different awards for his valor. But he did not receive all of the medals until several years ago when his children — Larry Zolman, Janice Bogner and Julie Imes — looked into researching his records.
“Our daughter, Janice, worked so hard to get them for him, and a congressman from Washington presented [the medals] to him. You see, they lost all his records in a big fire; a whole bunch of his records were burned. They don’t even have his records from being overseas,” said Dortha
He received 13 battle stars, several awards for rifle range expertise, operator-S and carbine firearm. Medals include American Campaign, American Defense, Efficiency Honor Fidelity, European African Middle Eastern Campaign, Germany Army of Occupation and World War II.
Zolman also received an American flag that flew over Washington, D.C., which now is proudly encased and hangs over his fireplace.