Decorated veteran relives stories from World War II
November 14, 2009
It was the 1940s in war-torn Germany, and a teenage Ray Wagner had just crawled through a field of land mines, trying to reach his sergeant, who he saw had been wounded and was sitting upright in a hostile area.
When he reached his commanding officer, he found him dead, propped up by his rifle, which was stuck through the bottom of his jaw.
"He was a nice man, a friend," he said. "I remember him from the train over. He had a good-looking wife and kids. Just to see them do that to him … it made me angry."
He grabbed the sergeant by his canteen belt and was carrying the body back to Allied forces when Germans began shooting at his retreating figure.
He tossed the sergeant into a nearby hole created by a mortar shell, but it landed on top of a landmine, which shook his eardrums and the pock-marked world around him.
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He received one of his three Bronze Star medals for his act that day, but paid for it with a severe loss of hearing and the memories of what he called a "rotten" war staining his mind for decades to come.
Wagner returned home from Europe with three Bronze Stars, one Silver Star, three Purple Hearts and a Presidential Citation of Valor, but also a leg full of shrapnel and memories he'd rather forget.
Now at age 85 and a Craig resident, Wagner still has strong feelings about World War II and the atrocities he said he faced and committed while overseas.
Wagner served in the U.S. Army in the 91st Infantry Division. His father fought in World War I and his great-grandfather in the Civil War. He knows of seven family members that have been lost in armed conflicts.
His father signed papers allowing him to enlist when he was 15.
He was deployed first to North Africa, where he was sent to a battle at Casablanca, which took the lives of 3,000 Allied troops.
But his survival there was only the beginning of several tours of duty that took him through Italy, Germany and Russia.
He worked as a sniper and diffused land mines, often parachuting into enemy territory to disarm or set explosives.
"We did a lot of things we didn't want to do, but you just don't have a choice," he said.
As a sniper in North Africa, he said he was told to shoot for the stomach, so the victim would die a slower death, sending a message and scaring other enemies that might stray in their path.
He always shot for the head.
"Why let them die like that? he asked. "We really did the Germans wrong."
He said the proudest thing he accomplished was rescuing a group of prisoners from high atop a mountain, most of whom were ailing with gangrene and missing limbs.
But they weren't Allied troops. They were Germans. The only thing that mattered to him was that it was the humane thing to do.
"It was the best thing I ever did," he said. "Why leave them to die like that? It doesn't matter who you are or where you are. It just matters where the bullet hits you."
He said he knew at least one of those soldiers survived because he heard from him years after he returned home to Craig.
There was another moment history tells him he should have been proud of, but to this day, he denounces his own actions.
He received a Silver Star for a fateful day in Italy, when he and his unit were fighting Nazi troops across a wide road. He crawled through a tunnel under the road and hit the German troops with grenades from behind.
When he returned to his side, every single one of his men had been killed.
While the Silver Star remains on his record, he refuses to acknowledge it.
"A lot of these guys shouldn't have died," he said. "We had no business being there, and I had no business going to the other side and leaving those guys. There are just some things you know you're not meant to have."
In September 1945, with the war over and the world at peace, 21-year-old Wagner rode into Craig on a Trailways bus.
He said he looked for the people he had left behind years ago when he was deployed to North Africa.
"I had friends who were now lawyers and doctors and some who worked at the bank," he said. "None of them went into the military. And they could have. They all had the chance. That's what hurt worse."
He found it hard to explain to others what his time at war was like, and why he would have done it again if he was asked.
If there were a conflict here in Craig, he said he'd be right in the middle of it.
If he were asked, like he was in Germany, to parachute into enemy territory and wire a bridge to explode by himself, he would do it all again.
"People always asked me if I knew how many people I have killed," he said. "I know about 124 people were lost on that bridge I blew, but the truth of it is I don't count. I have no idea how many I killed."
He returned from the war in 1945 and started Wagner Construction, which today is managed by his son, Jay.
Jay said he had heard little as a boy about his father's years in the war.
It wasn't until Jay's son, Steve, developed a strong interest in joining the Marine Corp and wanted to learn about each of his grandfather's awards that Wagner began to open up and tell his family stories.
Steve told his grandfather he wants to be a sniper, too.
Although most of Wagner's family and ancestors have been involved in some war or another, he has no desire to see his grandson live the same fate.
"I hate to see them go," he said. "I just hate to see it. But, if they do, I want them to go to the infantry. I want them to go with a gun in their hand. And I'd tell them don't take any orders once you get away from your unit. It may be wrong, but you have to do what you think is right."
Still, he wouldn't wish it on anyone in his family to live through what he did.
To this day, he remains entranced by the war. He has piles of books on his nightstand, and lives with constant dreams and thoughts of the horrors he saw.
Unnecessary, Wagner said.
"You go through it night after night," he said. "You can't get it out of you. It's in your dreams and the things you see that remind you of people. You can't get it out of your system. War is no good for no one. All those guys got killed, and for what?"