These are stories from an interview with 105-year-old World War II veteran, Platoon Sergeant John Skeen.

He served in the Aleutian Islands with the 201st Infantry Regiment and also in Europe with the 70th Infantry Division in the 275th Infantry Regiment.

Here's the original video, but I cover his best stories below.

New Year's Eve Ambush

 

On New Year's Eve, John and his platoon faced a terrible ambush while marching towards Bitche in the Lorraine Valley.

Under the cover of darkness, they moved through mountainous terrain to position themselves for a dawn attack. Unexpectedly, German forces bypassed them and launched a surprise assault. The clear, cold night was lit up by gunfire and explosions as the Germans opened fire with machine guns and artillery shells. The ambush resulted in significant casualties, with John's company losing ten men and many others wounded.

The lack of immediate cover and snow-covered terrain added to the chaos. Despite the initial shock, John's platoon quickly adapted. Positioned at the rear, John took charge of organizing the retreat, instructing his men to fall back about 400 to 500 yards and set up a new defensive position near a stream and railroad track.

They positioned machine gunners on a slope and stationed riflemen and bazooka operators near the bridge over the stream. When the Germans attempted to cross the bridge, John's platoon opened fire, catching the enemy soldiers in a deadly crossfire.

This defensive action stabilized their position and fended off further attacks, turning a chaotic ambush into a successful defensive stand.

The Engineer and the Bunker

 

John recounted a particularly intense encounter with a German bunker.

His platoon was held up by machine gun fire coming from a fortified position. After discussing the situation with his captain, John suggested flanking the bunker by moving along a cliffside that provided some cover. With a bazooka team and a few riflemen, John led the flanking maneuver.

The bazooka man missed the first shot, but the second shot hit its mark, causing a cloud of debris and effectively neutralizing the bunker. Despite being hit in the leg by shrapnel during this action, John pressed on, and his platoon successfully cleared the bunker and secured the area.

He later received medical attention for his wounds but rejoined his unit shortly afterward.

Capturing the German Soldiers

 

During one of the operations in the Lorraine Valley, John’s platoon engaged with German forces entrenched in a strategic location.  In one encounter, after a brief but fierce firefight, they managed to capture several German soldiers.

One of the prisoners revealed that an American soldier, presumed dead by his comrades, was actually alive and receiving medical care from the Germans. This information provided some solace and hope to John and his unit, illustrating the unpredictable nature of war and the unexpected humanity that sometimes emerged amidst the conflict.

The Encounter with the French Family

 

John shared a touching story about his interaction with a French family during the war.

While his platoon was stationed in a small French village, they took over a house as their command post. The house was occupied by a widow and her young daughter. Despite the language barrier, John and his men formed a bond with the family.

The little girl often brought them small gifts, like fresh bread and vegetables, which were a welcome treat compared to their rations. Before they moved out, the widow gave John a camera and several rolls of film she had hidden from the Germans, expressing her gratitude for their protection.

This camera later became a cherished possession, capturing many moments during and after the war.

The Medal Ceremony

 

One of the proudest moments in John’s military career was receiving a medal for bravery.

During an intense battle, John’s platoon was pinned down by enemy fire, and they were running low on ammunition. Risking his life, John crawled through the mud and debris to reach a fallen supply truck. He managed to retrieve enough ammunition and grenades to resupply his platoon, allowing them to hold their position until reinforcements arrived.

For this act of bravery, John was awarded the Silver Star. The medal ceremony was a somber yet proud moment for John and his men, serving as a testament to their courage and determination.

John kept the medal as a reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of his platoon, often sharing the story with young soldiers to inspire them.

The Escape

 

John recalled a harrowing escape from a German ambush.

His platoon was moving through dense woods when they were suddenly surrounded by enemy forces. The Germans had set a trap, and John's platoon was caught in a crossfire. Thinking quickly, John ordered his men to retreat into a nearby ravine. They moved silently and swiftly, avoiding detection.

The ravine led them to a river, where they used makeshift rafts to cross to the other side. Once they reached safety, John contacted their headquarters, and reinforcements were sent to help them. This daring escape not only saved their lives but also allowed them to regroup and continue their mission.

John's quick thinking and leadership were crucial in that critical moment, earning him the respect and admiration of his men.

The Rescue Mission

 

John shared a story about a daring rescue mission his platoon undertook.

They received intelligence that a group of American soldiers had been captured and were being held in a farmhouse behind enemy lines. Despite the risks, John and his men devised a plan to rescue them.

Under the cover of darkness, they approached the farmhouse, avoiding German patrols. They silently neutralized the guards and stormed the building, surprising the enemy. The rescue was a success, and they freed their fellow soldiers without any casualties.

This mission boosted the morale of the entire division and showcased the bravery and determination of John's platoon.

The Hidden Tunnel

 

In another story, John recounted how his platoon discovered a hidden tunnel used by the Germans.

While stationed in an old French village, they noticed unusual activities around an abandoned church. Suspecting something was amiss, John ordered a thorough search. His men found a hidden trapdoor leading to an underground tunnel. The tunnel was part of an extensive network the Germans used for transporting supplies and moving troops covertly.

Realizing the strategic importance of this find, John reported it to his superiors. The information led to a coordinated assault that disrupted the German supply lines, significantly aiding the Allied efforts in the region.

John's keen observation and initiative played a crucial role in this victory.

The Frozen Lake

 

John remembered a time when his platoon was crossing a frozen lake during the harsh winter in Europe.

The ice was thick, but there was always a risk of it cracking. They had to move slowly and carefully, spreading out to distribute their weight. Midway through the crossing, they heard the unmistakable sound of enemy artillery. With no cover in sight, they had to make a tough decision.

Speed up and risk the ice, or stay slow and risk getting shelled. John decided to speed up the pace, encouraging his men to keep moving quickly but carefully. They managed to cross the lake without incident, and as soon as they reached the other side, the ice behind them started to crack. They had narrowly escaped both the artillery and the icy waters.

This experience taught them the importance of quick decision-making and the thin line between safety and disaster.

The Christmas Truce

 

One of the most touching stories John shared was about a brief truce during Christmas.

It was Christmas Eve, and both sides were entrenched in their positions. As night fell, John and his men could hear the faint sound of singing from the German lines. To their surprise, it was "Silent Night." Despite the language barrier, the tune was unmistakable.

Feeling a moment of humanity amidst the war, John and his men responded with their own rendition of "Silent Night." For a few moments, the battlefield was filled with the sounds of soldiers singing together. There was an unspoken agreement that night; no shots were fired. On Christmas morning, small gifts were exchanged between the trenches—chocolates, cigarettes, and even a few bottles of wine.

This unofficial truce only lasted for a day, but it was a touching reminder of the shared humanity on both sides of the conflict.

It was a fleeting moment of peace in the midst of war that John never forgot.