Ninety-year-old Allan Caya has seen a lot of things in his life. A retired railroad man from Potosi, Caya grew up in Lynxville, and spent most of his life in Wisconsin, raising six children with his wife.
Caya left the state when he served as a soldier during World War II. Caya was in before the U.S. joined the Allies after Pearl Harbor, and was in after the Germans and Japanese surrendered, and in between that time he saw just what war was all about, from the good and bad luck of a soldier, to the depravities of the Nazis. It also gave him lasting friendships, and the chance to meet his wife.
He entered service in April 1941, eight months before Pearl Harbor, where he joined the 128th Infantry. Caya said that he was pressed into service by two older brothers, both who served during WWI. “They said “You’re not married, you don’t have a job - get into the Army and get some training.” Twenty-four at the time, he joined a group of draftees. A 50 caliber man at the start, he remembers being approached around Christmas for reassignment to the engineering division. Recalling one of his peers was angry to be taken off the heavy guns, Caya remembers saying, “We don’t know what we’re going to run into.”
After some training at Ft. Dix, Caya thought he was going to the West Coast to prepare for the Pacific. Those plans changed when the Lafayette, the French liner Normandie retrofitted to be troop ship, burned and capsized. “I was suppose to be on that ship,” Caya said.
Instead, he was placed on a marine transport, the Charles F. Elliot. With bunks eight-high, an armada of battleships and destroyers made there way to the European theatre. Eventually he made his way to rural Ireland. The Emerald Ilse served as training grounds for many of the Allied troops, and Caya recalls that most of the training going on around them were British women joining the war effort. “That was tough for us,” Caya joked.
In the span of four months, his unit built 22 chemical weapon depots, a job that was estimated to take two years. They also marched a lot to show German spies a larger force than had yet assembled. Those first years in the service were all about training - 35-mile runs, building obstacle courses for infantry. There was also the bridge his unit constructed over the Thames River with Canadian and British troops, an exhibition that drew the crowd of Winston Churchill.
In the meantime, he fell in love with an Irish woman named Patricia who he met while stationed there, got married and began a family, all while the war was going on around them.
Caya was expecting twins in the days leading up to D-Day, the great push to retake Europe. He recalls the Normandy invasion, when enemy fire was coming all over his landing craft. “We’re getting down as low as we can because the water is flying in from the bullets.” He remembers squatting in place and watching as a body floated past their boat. “I flipped him over - it was a guy from my squad. His eye was hanging out and and he didn’t make a move, so I reported him dead.” It was a man he knew well, Nick Pollmer.
Allen said that the choice of Normandy made the G.I.’s job all the more difficult. “There are all these hedgerows, and the Germans would stand at the tops in these forts, shooting down at you....nice going.”
War is a strange place, and you don’t know who is going to live and who is going to die. After the war in Europe was over, Caya visited his wife and children in England. Because one of the children was ill, Caya was looking for a few extra days leave and went to a service depot. While waiting, Caya saw a face he never thought he would. “I caught some movement in the corner of my eyes and looked. Here it was Nick Pollmer, coming over the top of the fence. No one knew he was alive. Can you imagine what a reunion that was?” Caya noted. He found out that Nick was caught up by following boats, and did not wake until a week after the invasion.
After the Allies secured their beachhead and started making their way across France and central Europe, Caya’s duties constantly changed. There were always different jobs. Caya recalls one duty he really didn’t care for, handling German oil inside a half-track. Responsible for managing the fuel, he remembers that the Germans attempted to take out the vehicle. “We came over a hill and kerwham - they knocked the motor out of the half-track, six to eight inches of arm off the lieutenant, and here we are sitting with all of these gas tanks around.”
More than 11 months were spent fighting their way from France to Czechoslovakia. Along the way, they were the engineers for the 2nd French Armor Division, which led to Caya participating in the liberation of Paris.
Then there was the Battle of the Bulge - Germans last-ditch counter attack that nearly succeeded in retaking Bastogne and knocking the Allies back. “I was in the Battle of the Bulge from the day that it started.” For a month and a half Caya said he lived in a hole in the ground. “You just cut through the frost and kept on digging until you had enough room.”
Caya actually had some warning as his commanding officer could sense an attack was imminent. “He said ‘we’re going to be attacked,’ and by golly he was right.”
Caya was initially beyond Bastogne, where he was purifying water when the attack began. Buzz bombs flying over their heads. Under siege with Germans all around, Caya remembers that even getting water was taking your life into your own hands. “Everything was covered in snow, so if they were out there, they would get you.” One particularly vibrant memory was the 20 minutes he tried to hide from a German pilot who kept buzzing around a building he was in.
The opening days of the Bulge were intense. “From 6 a.m. to 4 in the afternoon, I burned up 13 barrels on my 50 caliber gun, so you can tell there was a lot of people coming at us.”
The Allies held their ground and the rest is history.
As Americans made their way across Europe, Caya saw the costs people made in the war effort, and the toll on humanity. He remembered after capturing some Nazi soldiers, their new prisoners wondered why they weren’t shooting them. Caya soon found out why the Germans thought they would seek revenge when he saw the prisoner of war and concentration camp near Weimar where captured soldiers and citizens deemed as ‘unfit’ were taken. “That was awful,” Caya recalled, noting the smell of death hung on the ground. There was a stack of something he initially thought was cords of wood that turned out to be human remains, and the condition of the living inmates was overwhelming.
Seeing something like that, and being under fire with other men creates a bond that is not easily broken. Caya said that he kept in touch with his unit over the years, remembering not just the horrors of war, but the good times they had - the goofing around the camp, the stories like the one guy that asked him to bring back two bottles of whiskey after leave, and the moments they shared after they came back. As an example, Caya recalls that one of his friends came back with him before heading home, making sure he made it back.