As the war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, the soldiers of the 336th Combat Engineer Battalion began to celebrate.
Bill Luke, a young clerk from Minnesota, had one job: Make sure the party didn’t get out of control.
That wouldn’t be easy.
For almost a year, the men of the 336th had fought their way across Western Europe and liberated millions of people in the bloodiest war in history.
All of them had seen men die – in Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, the crossing of the Rhine and finally on the plains of northern Germany. That’s where they put down rifles and hoisted glasses filled with beer or wine or whatever they could find.
They toasted to victory and to fallen comrades.
Victory in Europe Day they called it, as hundreds of millions celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Seventy-five years later, they will do so again, a celebration muted less by the COVID-19 pandemic than by the fact that so few of them are left.
Of the more than 16 million American men and women who served in World War II, about 400,000 are still alive.
Some of them settled in Spokane, where they got jobs, raised families and earned an everlasting label as America’s Greatest Generation.
All are now in their 90s or older, but they remember the closing days of the war in Europe.
“We were fighting for freedom,” said Gene Domanico, who flew 18 missions over Europe in a B-17.
‘The flak, it scared the death out of you’
Gene Melanson was a 19-year-old kid from Connecticut when he arrived in upstate New York for basic training in 1943.
Considering that America was in the middle of a war, life was pretty good. Lack of Army housing meant that Melanson and his comrades were put up in a hotel in Rochester.
Nights were spent meeting women and finding a way to drink. Days were filled with weapons training. “I shot every .50-caliber machine gun I could get my hands on,” Melanson said. “I learned a lot.”
Soon Melanson learned to be afraid.
Shipped out to an Army Air Corps base in Italy, he served as a belly-gunner in a B-24 Liberator bomber in the skies over Europe.
As they struck oil fields and marshaling yards, the Germans threw up flak that shook his plane with explosions that blackened the sky.
The planes were most vulnerable during their final run to the target, a hellish experience that lasted 20 minutes.
“The flak, it scared the death out of you,” Melanson said.
When the war ended, Melanson embarked on a new adventure in Spokane.
Reunited with an East Coast girl he’d been corresponding with, he got married and moved with her family to Spokane because her brother was stationed at Geiger Field.
The brother moved back east, but Melanson and his wife stayed, and he went on to work at Kaiser Aluminum for 37 years before retiring.
‘We were fighting for freedom’
Before becoming a bombardier on a B-17 Flying Fortress, Gene Domanico had a busy life in Iowa.
Working in a night club and in a defense plant in Des Moines, he wanted no part of the infantryman’s life.
“I wanted to be a pilot, so I became an aviation cadet,” said Domanico, whose ambitions fell with a thud when the commander informed the graduates that the Army Air Corps was running low on navigators and bombardiers.
One of the first to earn the newly created rank of flight officer, Domanico shipped off to England with a singular purpose.
“We were fighting for freedom – the Nazis were trying to take over the world,” said Domanico, who served on 18 missions over Germany in the closing months of the war.
Planes were lost to bad weather and to the German flak – “It was terrible, so many planes lost,” Domanico said. “At the end of the war, they were throwing everything at us.”
Domanico returned to Iowa but later moved to Spokane when his second wife was named to lead a new school for the deaf and blind.
‘We were proud when we went over there’
By the time Ray Johnson graduated from Coeur d’Alene High School in 1942, the war had already come to the Inland Northwest.
That year, ground was broken for the Farragut Naval Training Station on Lake Pend Oreille.
With the blessing of his high school principal, Johnson helped build the base. Later, Johnson volunteered for the mountain troops and spent the final months of the war in Italy with the 10th Mountain Division.
By January 1945, the war was almost over, but the Italian front was stalemated by the mountains and the stubbornness of the German defenders.
“We were proud when we went over there to end the war, and that’s what we did,” said Johnson, who watched a neighboring regiment suffer heavy casualties in the mountains of northern Italy.
When peace finally came, it was an awkward affair. Running low on supplies, the Germans in Italy surrendered separately, more than a week earlier than the rest of their armies.
Moving into one town, Johnson and his comrades found that the Germans “hadn’t turned their arms in to anyone.” For several days until May 8, troops from both sides guarded the same warehouse.
When the war was over, Johnson returned home and worked as a carpenter in Coeur d’Alene. Married for 72 years, he’s enjoying a comfortable retirement.
A year of ‘great experiences’
For Ben Brooks, the war in Europe read like a movie script: a brush with death followed by a brush with fame.
A corporal with the 457th Coast Artillery Battalion, the Idaho native survived bullets and mines on D-Day. Two days later, still on the Normandy beaches, he caught sight of American generals Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and George Patton.
A few months later in Luxembourg, Brooks’ unit was assigned to protect Patton. After shooting down a German plane, Patton rewarded them with a hot meal and a movie.
Several months later, the same anti-aircraft gun was in danger of falling off a pontoon bridge on the Rhine River.
Chafing at the delay, Patton wanted the gun dumped into the river – until a soldier from St. Maries, Idaho, reminded the general it was the same gun that saved him in Luxembourg.
“We can’t dump that!” Patton replied. “Get some men on that!”
When the war ended, Brooks was in Bavaria. He helped clear out Hitler’s Alpine hideaway, the “Eagle’s Nest.”
Brooks took several golden doorknobs with him that he carried until the day he left Europe. But the bag he carried them in, which also contained an elaborate camera confiscated from a German citizen after the Nazis surrendered, was stolen as he got on the victory ship, he said.
“I didn’t give a hell of a lot about losing the camera, but I hated to get rid of those doorknobs,” Brooks said.
Brooks made a quick transition from war to peace. By year’s end, he was enrolled at the University of Idaho.
After earning an economics degree, he worked at Murphey Favre in Spokane, then sold securities at Washington Mutual. He and his wife, Annette, raised three children.
‘It was a big party’
By the time the war in Europe was over, Bill Luke had seen it all.
On D-Day, he had witnessed the carnage at Omaha Beach. Eleven months later, he was in the middle of Germany with the 9th U.S. Army.
More surprises awaited as the 9th Army invaded northern Germany. As Luke’s unit occupied the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, he found the main office. It was filled with books.
“We thought they might be booby-trapped, but I’ll never forget one of the books,” Luke said. “It was a guidebook to Detroit.”
Later, on the Elbe River, he witnessed thousands of German civilians who were more than eager to be liberated by the Americans instead of the Russians.
“They were strung out for miles, in cars and wagons and on foot; I’m sure that the Germans didn’t care for the Russian life,” Luke said.
When the war ended, the party began for the 336th Combat Engineer Battalion.
“There were only two of us who didn’t drink, so we had to watch everybody – it was a big party,” Luke said.
“But it never got out of control.”
Most of his colleagues expected to be sent halfway around the world to finish the war against Japan. Instead, Luke and others got a free railway tour of Switzerland.
“That was a nice gesture,” said Luke, who was still on his Alpine adventure when word in August 1945 came that Japan had surrendered.
Now the war really was over, and Luke could return home. In 1953, he “married the perfect girl” and established a trade journal focusing on the bus industry.
In 1969, he and wife Adelene moved to Spokane, where for five years Luke was assistant manager of Empire Lines. He went on to produce trade journals and other publications.
“I was just pleased that I had a part in helping bring about peace,” Luke said. “That was important to all of us.”
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