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Private First Class Jerry W. Pnovsky

Rifleman

1st Platoon, I Company, 355th Infantry Regiment, 89th Infantry Division

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Jerry Wencil Pnovsky was born in April of 1925 the son of Czechoslovakian immigrants who had settled in the rural farming region of Bear Lake in Manistee, Michigan. The family had only immigrated to the United States just a decade or so prior but launched a farm in the harsh Michigan climate in hopes of pursuing an independent life. Jerry was one of several siblings and grew up attending a high school miles away from his isolated home. Living through harsh northern Michigan winters all the while the Great Depression raged upon his newly immigrated family, Jerry’s childhood experience could not have been an easy one. His sophomore year of high school he watched as his country went off to war and spent the next two years watching behind the fences of his family farm as life went on relatively unaffected by the wartime changes. This period of relative peace, however, did not last long as not long after his 18th birthday Jerry was drafted into the U.S. Army for combat service overseas. 

 

Completing basic training as a rifleman, he was soon attached to the re-forming 89th Infantry Division as a rifleman in the 1st Platoon of I Company in the 355th Infantry Regiment. The division was one of the later American units that planned to go overseas to Europe and set off for war on 10 January 1945. Jerry and the division arrived in France roughly two weeks later and continued to do advanced combat training in-theater for the next month before several weeks of long-hauling transportation began to take the 89th Division GIs towards the action. It was not until March 11th that Jerry and his company reached the German town of Wittlich that their true combat test began. Relieving elements of the 10th Infantry Regiment, 5th Infantry Division, Jerry’s platoon was sent to guard a bridge at the center of the town, the company’s first combat task. The next day Jerry and his platoon were also the first to encounter German forces when they went on patrol and captured eight of them. 

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The next couple of weeks saw Jerry’s company quickly learn the ins and outs of combat, taking several small German towns with little resistance and only suffering minimal casualties. For the most part, the towns and villages scattering the German countryside were simple heaps of rubble and flames, ruined by prior assault or bombing. It was a rather dismal sight and one truly representative of the end-times for the Third Reich. Some of their most notable dangers during this period weren’t even from Wehrmacht ground troops, but the waning air-support of the Luftwaffe as their company, riding on trucks and tanks of the 11th Armored Division, was strafed by fighters several times near Worms and Oberwessel. In all, the movement was fast-paced as the company, largely grouped with the 11th and 4th Armored Divisions, advanced rapidly into the desolate German homeland. The going was like this until the first few days of April when Jerry and his battalion uncovered something no American soldier had ever quite seen before.

 

While traveling down the autobahn in the first few days of April the company was strafed once again but their traveling AAA gun managed to shoot down the attacker. At this point attached to the 4th Armored, the battalion was moving towards the town of Gotha for a predicted major fight with German forces there. In the early hours of 4 April, however, the men were rerouted temporarily to inspect and assist with something unspeakable uncovered by the 355th I&R platoon and elements of the 602nd Tank Destroyer Battalion. Rolling up on the outskirts of the town of Ohrdruf, the glistening barbed wire and standing guard towers signaled something altogether new to the men of the 3rd Battalion. Walking up to the gate the men discovered stacks of corpses strewn about a large prison compound in various states of ruin and decay. Most were facedown upon the ground with bullets in the back of the skull or neck, others were sprawled as if gunned-down en masse. The worst, however, were piled into a large makeshift crematorium in the central part of the camp half-burned and charred. This was the Ohrdruf sub-camp of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Although nearly 9,000 of its prisoners had been sent on a forced march only days before, Jerry and his company found roughly 900 corpses and barely-breathing survivors throughout the camp. This was the very first concentration camp ever discovered by American forces and was truly an unspeakable sight for men who had only met their first Germans less than three weeks earlier. For several hours on the 4th, the battalion spent clearing around the camp and assisting the weak, frail, and dying survivors. The work would have been mind-shaking and the smell even worse. It was nothing short of horror beyond all comprehension. Jerry and his comrades were only in the camp for a few hours, however, after relieving the units which spotted it and were themselves relieved a few hours later by units of the 354th Infantry. Although they were only in the camp for a short period of time before moving once more towards Gotha, the scenes and images that Jerry and his companions experienced here would last a lifetime.

The makeshift crematorium at Ohrdruf
The makeshift crematorium at Ohrdruf

From the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

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Barrack at Ohrdruf
Barrack at Ohrdruf

From the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

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A mass grave outside the Ohrdruf camp
A mass grave outside the Ohrdruf camp

From the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

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The makeshift crematorium at Ohrdruf
The makeshift crematorium at Ohrdruf

From the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

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The next day the battalion had arrived with the 4th Armored outside Gotha where a large German force surrendered only 10 minutes before a planned American assault. The next three days were spent rounding up masses of prisoners and securing the city before I Company got new orders to join some tanks in the clearing of nearby Hohenkirchen. Here SS resistance was much heavier and the company suffered several casualties. There were many less prisoners taken here, however, as one of I Company’s medics was killed by a German soldier while treating a wounded GI. This infuriated the men of the company, likely still emotional after their day at Ohrdruf, and thus the company CO noted “it was going to be difficult taking prisoners” as a result. 9 April was full of more attacks on Georgenthal and the woods near the town as the men advanced towards the next major target: the town of Arnstadt.

 

The town was a reasonably large city of several thousand and was tasked to the 3rd Battalion as an unknown but notable German force was still garrisoned there. I Company was put on the left flank of the assault and at 0800 on 10 April began moving forwards in the attack. The attack was quick and met no German opposition. Upon reaching high ground outside of the city the battalion CO decided to attempt a surrender from the German forces, arranging a truce and sending in the battalion S-2 to negotiate with the enemy. Unfortunately, the jeep and negotiator were ill-met and were told that the Germans planned to hold the city at all costs. As the S-2 zoomed his way back towards allied lines, Jerry and I Company had dug into a forested hill outside of the city in preparation for the order to attack. While the GIs were planning to wait until the truce ended at 1300, the Germans had other ideas. Opening up on any allied positions, a large artillery barrage began pounding away at sections of the 3rd Battalion line, most notably, amongst I Company. Hit with a series of mortars and artillery rounds, Jerry and his comrades ducked into cover but the hail of shells proved strong. The rounds were hitting the trees above their heads and exploding burning-hot shrapnel down onto the American troops. It was during these first few moments that one shell blew directly above Jerry, peppering him, his platoon lieutenant, and two other members of his platoon with shrapnel. Although the attack went on and succeeded in driving out the German defenders, Jerry and his buddies went further from the frontlines and into the nearest field hospital.

Marching into Arnstadt
Marching into Arnstadt

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Arnstadt
Arnstadt

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Marching into Arnstadt
Marching into Arnstadt

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Jerry’s wounds were fairly serious and ended his combat career entirely. After a month or two of healing in Europe, he was shipped back to the United States to finish recovery in Battle Creek Hospital, being discharged from there and the service only a few months later. In all Jerry  spent roughly a single month in combat but in that month saw the devastation wrecked upon the German fatherland, was strafed by multiple German fighter planes, witnessed the unimaginable brutality of Nazi attrocities at Ohrdruf, and succumbed major wounds from artillery in battle. Following release from the service he married in 1947 before starting a career in several factories, ending as a supply clerk for the Bell Electric Supply Company where he stayed until retirement.