WWII veteran lost foot but not goal of teaching Deal with Army allowed him to finish year of college if he enlisted at Baer Field
Editor’s note: This is one in a biweekly series about World War II veterans and their experiences. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
In 1942, the U.S. Army had a deal for Dale M. Pence, an education student at Huntington College. “I had completed two years of schooling,” he said. “Everyone believed the war was winding down. Army officials told me that if I enlisted at Baer Field, they would allow me to finish one year of college.”
Pence agreed and completed his third year before receiving orders to report for induction in May 1943 at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis.
Pence had been born in Huntington in 1922. The youngest of six children, he graduated from Clear Creek High School in 1940. His father had fought in World War I.
Pence completed basic training at Camp Wolters, Texas. Later he was sent to Camp Butner in North Carolina. He was attached to the 35th Army Division. He also participated in the Tennessee Maneuvers in that state from August 1943 to May 1944.
While there, Pence was visited by his parents, sister and girlfriend, Marge. He and Marge, also from Huntington, had dated in college. Pence received a pass home in January and the couple married Jan. 20, 1944.
Then Pence was off to New York City, where he and thousands of other troops boarded three ships from Europe. “Approximately 5,000 soldiers were on each ship,” he said. “An armada of destroyers traveled with us for protection.” Pence was assigned to Comp I of 134th Infantry.
After landing in Liverpool, England, the troops advanced to Normandy Beach in July 1944. Although it was a month after the famous landing of Allied forces on the French coast, the area was not without danger. Fighting continued in the hedgerows along the beach. “We were told to dig foxholes and get in them for cover,” Pence said.
He was still digging when a German shell landed nearby, wounding his hip. He returned to England for treatment and was in the hospital from August through October 1944.
While Pence recovered, Allied forces progressed across France. “Those of us in the hospital thought the war would be over soon,” he said. “Everyone knew it except Hitler.”
Pence was finally deemed healed and returned to his unit. He was there only 10 days when, on Nov. 8, 1944, he was wounded again, this time more seriously.
Pence had been standing on a hill when a piece of shrapnel entered his neck. “It exited out my right side,” he said. “If that piece had hit my carotid, I would have bled to death.”
Unfortunately, that was not the end of his injuries. Another piece of shrapnel exploded at his feet, causing Pence to blackout.
The first thing he was aware of was lying on a stretcher. “Four guys carried me down a hill, then loaded me on a stretcher on the front of a jeep to go to a field hospital,” he said. “It was a rough ride!”
Medical staff inserted a tracheotomy to help Pence breathe. He found out later that the explosion had cost him his big toe on his left leg. His right leg was even more damaged. “My right ankle was a mass of flesh from the explosion,” he said. Doctors amputated his leg below the knee. Pence was sent back to the U.S. to recover at Thomas M. England General Hospital in Atlantic City.
On the ship, Pence’s injured leg ached enough to cause the ship’s doctor to remove the cast. Underneath they found a piece of shrapnel had begun working its way out of Pence’s skin. Pence kept it and shows it to visitors today.
A Red Cross volunteer helped him write a letter to Marge, explaining the loss of his foot. She still has the letter and many other mementos of Dale’s war years in a scrapbook that she assembled. It contains the telegram that notified her that Pence had been injured.
While the loss of his foot was devastating, Pence was perhaps more worried about his loss of voice. As an education major, he fretted that he may not be able to fulfill his passion for teaching.
“My doctor said my voice would eventually return, but I didn’t know,” he said. For a month, Pence was forced to whisper. Then, his voice became stronger, but it was different. “Marge didn’t recognize me on the phone,” he said. Before his injury Pence had liked to sing, but afterwards he could no longer do so.
In Atlantic City, Pence was close enough for Marge to visit him. In the former resort-turned-hospital, Pence received medical treatment from January to November 1945. During that time, doctors removed a few more inches of his damaged leg to allow for a properly-fitted wooden prosthesis. Finally, in November 1945, months after the war had ended, Pence was discharged. The long nightmare was over.
Pence finished his degree and taught three years at Huntington Township. He then became principal at Monument City for grades 1-12 for five years.
He accepted a position as principal of three elementary schools in Columbia City for 13 years. After that, he worked as assistant superintendent of schools in Columbia City for 17 years. He and Marge became parents to two sons.
Pence admitted to suffering from nightmares for several years as a result of the war, but time eventually healed his painful memories. Although he didn’t talk about his painful war experiences for many years, at the request of a young family member, he finally began sharing them in the early 2000s.
In 1995, he and Marge traveled to Normandy to see where he had fought. In his recollections Pence wrote, “Marge wondered how anybody had made it to the top alive while being fired on by the enemy. I believe if I had been on the beach of Normandy on June 6, my chances of surviving would have been slim. I’m blessed.” <br>
<i> Bluffton author Kayleen Reusser published the book “World War II Legacies: Stories of Northeast Indiana Veterans.” Contact her at kjreusseradamswells.com. </i>