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Former Picatinny leader writes WWII memoir

Ed Lopez and Cassandra Mainero Friday, July 12, 2013

Former Picatinny leader writes WWII memoir John P. Amerspek
Through his association with the Army spanning decades, John P. Amerspek has been immersed in a kaleidoscope of experiences.

During World War II, he was among a group of Soldiers that was chewed out by the growly Gen. George S. Patton.

At Picatinny Arsenal, he saw the roof of a building blown off when the wrong type of kettle was used to mix pyrotechnic chemicals, producing too much friction that ignited an explosion.

And as a measure of his contributions and stature at Picatinny, an executive conference room was named in honor, complete with a three-dimensional bronze plaque of his image.

The plaque describes Amerspek as a Soldier—Leader—Patriot from 1942 to 1981. Additional words read, “A Lifetime Dedicated to Country, Army and Industry Partners.”

Amerspek, now 91, recently published a World War II memoir called From Casablanca to Dachau: A GI Recalls.

The book recounts the experiences of a 19-year-old volunteer from Fair Lawn, N.J., who would participate in six invasions and saw combat from North Africa to Italy to France and then onto Germany.

“I made it, but it was close,” Amerspek recalled in a recent interview.

Although Armerspek spent many years of his life on behalf of the Army, as an eager volunteer at the outset of World War II he was initially drawn to the Navy, which he loved.

Except, when he was asked to provide a urine sample during enlistment testing, he couldn’t comply.

“I was so nervous I couldn’t provide,” Amerspek explained, somewhat sheepishly.

“But the guy next to me had more then he needed, so I went to get some of his and I was caught. They threw me out of there. They shoved me out the door,” he said with a wide grin as he recounted the incident.

Not to be deterred and still wanting to serve, Amerspek proceeded to the Army recruiting office and signed up for duty. In 1943, he crossed the Atlantic as part of a 3rd Division platoon. His group, called the Vermont Platoon, consisted of a carefully selected group of about 30 people.

Their mission was to provide early-warning radar detection of German aircraft for U.S. forces. However, because of the state of technology,the Vermont Platoon had to be located at the front of the battle line.

“The (radar) range was very small at that time,” Amerspek said. Once enemy aircraft were detected, a message would be radioed to command headquarters to alert American aircraft and anti-aircraft batteries.

Amerspek first landed in Northern Africa, where the Vermont Platoon invaded Casablanca, Morocco (formerly known as the French Morocco). After a torpedo hit their platoon’s ship during post-invasion, they lost their personal belongings as well as their equipment. Amerspek volunteered to be airlifted to a battlefield in Tunisia.

Tunisia would be Amerspek’s first exposure to combat.

“We were rushed to North Africa when we were unprepared with inferior equipment and were badly mauled by the professionals of the German Africa Corps,” Amerspek wrote in his memoir. “Morale was seriously tested.”

From Tunisia, Amerspek went to Pantelleria, a volcanic island between Sicily and Northern Africa. There, the Vermont Platoon captured an air field and German fighter aircraft that used to fly over the valley daily.

ENCOUNTER WITH GEN. PATTON

But, it wasn’t until Amerspek was in Sicily that he had a personal encounter with Gen. Patton.

Provided with a small break between battles, the Vermont Platoon went to Gela, a small town in Southern Italy. While waiting to see a USO show, Amerspek and a group of Soldiers waited on a curb and watched a caravan of cars pass by briskly.

One car, with general stars on its license plate, stopped and a lieutenant colonel got out, motioning for Amerspek and the other Soldiers to approach. Gen. Patton, who was sitting in the car, then immediately chewed them out for not following military protocol and saluting when his car passed.

“He was loud, he swore a lot, he was very religious but he cursed a lot,” Amerspek said recently of the irascible general. “But he was a commanding figure and when he said something, he meant it.”

Shortly after, Amerspek and his fellow Soldiers returned to the battlefield and invaded Salerno, where the Germans prepared thick mine fields, tank traps, machine guns, as well as anti-aircraft guns.

“It was the bloodiest invasion we had,” Amerspek wrote in his memoir.

The battles that followed led Amerspek through three other invasions around Europe, including Anizo Beachhead, Southern France, and Alsace-Lorraine. He was also involved in the liberation of Rome and was sent briefly to Corsica for mountain training before entering Worms, Germany.

Yet, the most memorable experience for Amerspek was helping to liberate Dachau, a concentration camp.

“We heard sporadic gunfire as we infiltrated the area,” Amerspek describes Dachau in his memoir. “The entrance to the complex was a large gate which was open, with a large sign on top with an eagle and swastika. The sign read in German “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Loosely translated, it means labor provides freedom.

WAR AND HOPE

As with many other Soldiers, the punishing pace of the war and the constant danger of death could take its toll on Amerspek. Thoughts of home and loved ones left behind could inject a buoyancy of badly needed energy and hope.

In his memoir, Amerspek quotes from an entry in his journal: "I miss my fiancée terribly. I only wish that I could see her again. I have so many things to tell her. I want to tell her how much I love her, over and over again."

Amerspek’s fiancée, Adele, whom he would marry not long after his return from Europe, worked at an upscale hairdressing salon for wealthy patrons in Montclair, N.J.

In a recent interview, Amerspek underscored the extent to which the relationship would bring him a sense of stability during the war years and later.

“You know what kept me going? My wife,” Amerspek said, and points to a picture of his late wife on the wall.

“I can’t get over her death, she died less than a year ago,” he said, his voice shifting to a more somber tone.

“She waited for me for three years,” he added. “I had no education when I went into the Army. I had no skills.”

After his return from Europe, Amerspek would get an education in industrial engineering and land a job at Picatinny, an opportunity that would blossom into many years of rewarding experiences for the couple once separated by war.


(Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part series on John Amerspek. The next installment will focus on his years at Picatinny. Ed Lopez is editor of The Picatinny Voice. Cassandra Mainero is an intern in the Public Affairs Office.)