WWII legacies: Gus Nagy – Army machine gunner in Europe
Upon being drafted into the U.S. Army in October 1943, Augustus ‘Gus’ Nagy of Fort Wayne fought against Hitler’s armed forces as part of the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion. He also witnessed one of the war’s most harrowing sites–the liberation of Dachau work camp.
Born in August 1925 in Ashland, West Va., to a coal miner and his wife, Nagy grew up the youngest of eight children. Named after the North African theologian Augustine of Hippo who later became a saint, Nagy was forced to quit attending Gary High School in Gary, West Va., to travel to boot camp at Fort Riley, Kan. An older brother had already joined the Navy.
Despite being unable to finish school, Gus Nagy was ahead in skills that helped him adapt to military life “I already knew how to shoot because I used to hunt rabbits and squirrels with a shotgun in the hills around our home,” he said.
After basic training, Nagy was sent to Camp Campbell on the Kentucky/Tennessee border for training with the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion. Later, he was assigned to Company C, 8th Armored Division as a machine gunner.
Nagy sailed with his division from Boston in December 1944 for Europe. “Our troop ship was crowded and filled with replacements for soldiers who had fallen in battle,” he said. “We traveled in a convoy for protection.” Nagy was one of the lucky ones who never felt seasick.
At Le Havre, France the ship arrived after the Battle of the Bulge ended in February 1945. Still, sub-zero temperatures pervaded as the new troops traveled throughout France and Germany. “By that time, there were not many good roads,” he said. “Our half-tracks could still go almost anywhere except through mud.
Nagy operated one of two 30-caliber machine guns on the half-tracks. “I was proud of our tanks,” he said. “We had three sizes, light, medium, and large. All of them could go 60 miles per hour.”
In April 1945 Nagy’s division was part of the group of Allied forces that helped to liberate the work camp at the German village of Dachau. After Adolph Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, he established his first prison for dissenters against his Nazi regime at Dachau. Thousands of people who spoke against Hitler’s rule were imprisoned there until the camp’s liberation in 1945.
Nagy and the others were appalled at witnessing the results of the inhumanity done to prisoners within the camp. “It was horrifying,” he said. “We had not known what to expect. What we saw walking around didn’t look like humans, but zombies wearing gray clothes. We saw corpses in ditches. We couldn’t believe our eyes.”
Most of the German officers guarding the camp had fled by the time the Allied troops arrived. Nagy also saw the three crematorium ovens used to burn bodies.
He recalled how the American troops wanted to offer food to the starving people, but were ordered not to do so. “We were told their bodies could not handle regular food right away and that our food would kill them,” he said. Instead, the former prisoners were given medical attention that addressed their starved conditions.
In the next several weeks, Nagy’s division traveled to several major German cities where they saw evidence of the Axis powers’ loss of power. “In Munich, Berlin, Cologne, and Nuremberg we saw many buildings leveled,” he said. “If an area was not already in rubble, we bulldozed our way through.”
When Germany surrendered in May 1945, the war was only half over. The Japanese military still refused to give up. Nagy, like hundreds of thousands of other Allied troops, was put on alert. “We didn’t celebrate Germany’s surrender too much because we were told we would be headed to Japan to invade in late summer,” he said.
At Santa Maria, California, Nagy and other troops practiced moving from ships to smaller boats as part of the planned invasion.
He was at home in WV with a delay in route order when the Japanese Imperial Forces finally surrendered in September 1945 following the bombings of the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. “President Harry S. Truman was the best president we’ve ever had,” said Nagy, referring to Truman’s decision to drop the bombs in August 1945.
Nagy was assigned to stay in Bavaria during the occupation. Nagy credits people at home in the U.S. for supporting the troops. “People like my father who mined and farmers and the people who worked in the factories and had to ration goods and still managed to send us supplies were the reasons we won the war,” he said.
After Nagy was discharged in late 1945 at the rank of private first class, he returned home to work in a coal mine for six months. However, wanting to do something different with his life, he moved to Fort Wayne in 1946 where he eventually worked at Fruehauf Trailer Company and Food Marketing Corporation. He married in 1948 and he and his wife, Catherine, became parents to six children. Nagy has participated with Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana.
“I might have been drafted, but I had a good reason for wanting to fight in the war,” he said. “I didn’t want my children to be raised under Germany’s control.”