Staff Sergeant William E. Fenstermaker
36th Division Artillery Headquarters
William E. Fenstermaker was born the fifth of six children to a bustling Pennsylvania family in their farmhouse just outside of Limestone in Lycoming County. His father, at first a boilermaker for the railroad, had turned to farming by the time William came along and moved to the rolling farmland surrounding the tiny township of Limestone. It was here that William grew up, graduating from high school in Jersey Shore in 1941. He worked as a laborer, unsure of his long-term career, but was cut short by the entrance of the United States into WWII only a few months after he had graduated high school. In the spring of 1943, however, William’s time in Limestone came to an end when he was drafted into the United States Army, entering the service on 25 March 1943.
Once William had completed basic training he was shipped overseas to his combat unit where on 8 October 1943 he was officially attached to the Division Artillery Headquarters for the 36th Infantry Division. Joining as the division was recovering from losses taken in the Salerno landings, he intended to join the company as a general clerk but quickly learned that his primary responsibilities would be that of the mail clerk for all division artillery units. The division artillery HQ was a company-sized unit intended to oversee all fire orders and operations of the various field artillery battalions organically attached to the 36th Division as well as any temporarily attached or supporting units working with the division throughout its many campaigns. As the mail clerk, William’s job was to maintain the flow of division mail down through the artillery battalions attached to the division. Using a spare Dodge WC ¾ weapons carrier as his mail truck, he dodged enemy shots and shells as he bopped around the Italian countryside to deliver artillerymen their desperately awaited letters and packages from home. On one of his first days on the job William recalled that “the shelling was quite bad, especially around this crossroads I had to drive through.” Most times the artillery was so bad that he had to wait for a signal to be flashed to him from a position in the hills across from him that way he knew it was safe to drive, but still doing so “as fast as possible.”
When the division went back onto the line in mid-November William found himself traveling across hazardous mountain terrain the performance of his duties as the division pushed back German positions across the southern Italian mountain ranges. Although this campaign was full of humping troops and supplies up and down the numerous rocky crags dotting the landscape, William remembered his first Christmas overseas with notes in a small journal he kept while in combat:
24 December 1943 - Christmas eve. Someone thought it would be nice to go to Venafro for midnight mass so we went to the forward CP in the dark. What a road to drive even in daytime let alone without lights at night. We went to Venafro only to find there was no service – no one had bothered to inquire about that part of it. While in this area, Mr. Zepp (the warrant officer) buried several dead Germans. He got me a button off one of their coats. Artillery fire sounded almost continually while here.
25 December 1943 - Left the cave we learned to call home and moved to another olive grove. Perygoff and I slept in a dugout until it fell in from the rain… Moved to my mail truck. While gathering firewood, I found a German sign which I gave to Sammy as a souvenir. Spent Christmas in a little pup tent which I shared with McKush. It wasn’t a very merry Christmas, but it was a good Christmas dinner we had turkey and all the trimmings.
According to notes later in his writing, this was much nicer than their Thanksgiving when the company cook got so drunk he forgot to prepare the turkey properly and ended up giving nearly the entire company food poisoning as a result. While the fighting conditions may have been tame during the Christmas holiday, the torrential weather refused to give either army a rest, leading William to make another notation in his journal for New Year’s:
2 January 1944 - New Year’s Night we had a most terrific storm. I never heard the wind blow so hard. Tore our tent in shreds and left us standing in freezing rain with nothing but a blanket to keep warm. It lasted from midnight until 10 AM. We nearly froze to death… McKush, Horlick, and I went to a farmhouse to sleep that night and slept between three pigs and a donkey. Moved into a pup tent the following morning as the bray of the donkeys and squeals of the pigs were more than we could stand.
The Italian campaign was not an easy one for any soldiers, even those attached to division headquarter units like William. Throughout the campaign he had numerous brushes with death as the division faced a determined and rugged foe. The 36th’s most infamous defeat, the tragedy at the Rapido River, found William going above and beyond his duty to personally evacuate wounded soldiers from the horrendous aftermath of the river crossing. It was a moment when all men of the division came together in a concerted effort to save their many injured brothers-in-arms. For his particular actions rescuing T-Patchers, William was awarded a divisional commendation for “exceptionally meritorious conduct” signed by General Fred Walker himself. Later on in the campaign he was able to commemorate his combat experiences with a German souvenir–a large shard of metal from a German railway gun. According to William’s account he was resting in an upstairs room of a small Italian home one day but got up to go and do some other duty of his when, only seconds after he left, one of the German rail gun rounds tore the building to shreds, blasting away the entire side of the structure where Wiliam had just been staying. Investigating the wreckage of the shell, he found a “red hot” piece of shrapnel lying there which he decided to keep in remembrance of his near escape from death.
For the moments of relief came moments of severe distress, a constant balance for the GIs fighting across the Italian peninsula. One of William’s more somber moments came when he decided to write a letter home to the family of another soldier in his company who had been killed in action. The soldier, Steven McIntyre, was in the wire section of the division artillery HQ while William was still doing the mail. After receiving orders that they were going to move out from their command post in Silverado, Italy, Steven came early in the morning light to deliver a letter for William to mail out to his wife back home. He agreed but conditioned that he would make sure to open any of Steven’s wife’s letters that she sent home so that he could read them before passing them on to Steven. Leaving with a hearty laugh, Steven joined a lieutenant and other wiremen to begin preparing telephone lines for the upcoming advance. Driving in their jeep across a small bridge up the line, the trio was ambushed by German forces, capturing the other enlisted man and forcing the officer to flee. Steven, however, was directly hit by the German fire at the outset of the ambush and was killed immediately without the chance to even draw his gun. While a letter describing the situation would usually have been written by the officer, William had to explain that the officer went on to be killed in Southern France, and with the other man in a POW camp, William took it upon himself to inform the family of what had happened to their son. It was an extremely tough task for William to undergo and he admitted to writing dozens of drafts of the letter before he found one fitting enough to send home.
William followed the division throughout the rest of the war, surviving the capture of Rome, advancing up Southern France, the snow-filled hellscape of the Vosges, and much more as the 36th Division moved closer and closer to Germany. It was William’s mail delivery, however, that kept troops light and cheery throughout their dark circumstances, bringing them small pieces of home to warm them while they shed blood and tears in a foreign nation thousands of miles away. William wrote later about one of the more meaningful moments he experienced in France during the week of Christmas 1944. While the division was resting after defeating massive German counterattacks across their line on the Alsatian plain, he described how the division artillery HQ spent a few days of “peace and quiet” in the town of Graffenstadden where they occupied some apartment houses, away from the elements. On Christmas Eve he and some of his buddies even went caroling to the locals, singing up and down the city streets trying to bring some cheer to the war-weary French people and their American liberators. It was a “very quiet and pleasant Christmas.”
The next few months continued the terrible fighting that had characterized the division’s time overseas, seeing the German army fight in desperation to keep the allies away from their Fatherland while the Reich collapsed around them. In April 1945 elements of the 36th came across a Dachau subcamp in the town of Landsberg, discovering hundreds of corpses of emaciated and brutalized prisoners along with equally tortured and suffering survivors. William made a point to see the atrocities for himself, writing how the camp was “dug back so you couldn’t see anything from the air,” but that the smell of the bodies made it impossible to miss on the ground. Railroad cars were found stacked with bodies, “like cordwood, with lime in between,” as the GIs attempted to emotionally wrangle with the intensity of the horrors they were seeing. In one pungent anecdote, William detailed how several prisoners realized that three of their German guards had been left at the camp but dressed up as prisoners to avoid Allied detection. The inmates, seeing through the disguise, became furious, grabbing pickaxes and hacking the Germans to death in front of the T-Patchers. “Nobody stopped them,” William remembered, “they just let them kill them.”
When the war ended on 8 May 1945 William had accumulated almost two years of combat experience, earning five battle stars and an arrowhead for his service with the 36th across Italy, France, and Germany. Returning home that November, he immediately utilized his GI Bill benefits by attending Bucknell University, graduating with a degree in his newfound passion, divinity, in 1949. He went on to Drew Theological Seminary afterward and graduated in 1952 to become an ordained Methodist Minister. While in seminary, however, he spent much of his time working at the Gettysburg Theological Seminary where he would find one of his major longtime congregations as the pastor for the local church. This was the same church attended by William’s former commander, albeit it a little higher up than the 36th Infantry Division, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his wife while they lived in Gettysburg for many years. One of William’s favorite pastimes was traveling and throughout his ministerial career, he made trips across the world visiting places all over, from old wartime spots to entirely different continents. In 1985 William retired from the ministry but retained the antique store he had opened up in the remains of an old church in Schellsburg. He kept up in ministry, guest pastoring at several local churches and working with orphanages, but overall was beloved as a respected and compassionate member of his community.