Walter Krautz survived the jungle, but the sacrifices he made during a World War II mission behind enemy lines in Southeast Asia didn’t end once he was back home in Greensburg.
“When he came back, he had malaria,” said his daughter, Linda West of Hempfield. “He was so sick.”
During his extended time engaged in jungle warfare in 1944, Krautz suffered from malnutrition, losing his teeth as a result, his daughter said.
He also contended with post-traumatic stress disorder, including recurring nightmares.
“That was really hard on him,” West said. “He would wake up in the middle of the night screaming from terrible dreams.”
Krautz was one of nearly 3,000 soldiers who volunteered for the hazardous mission in Japanese-held Burma with a special unit. Formally designated as the 5307th Composite Unit, they became better known as Merrill’s Marauders, after their commander, Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill.
“They were the original Army Rangers back in the day,” said West’s husband, David.
Operating in the country now known as Myanmar, the unit completed a grueling 1,000-mile trek on foot, packing supplies on mules. It captured an airfield in the northern part of the country and disorganized Japanese supply lines and communications, clearing the way for advancing Chinese allies.
But those achievements came at a high price, as the Marauders suffered more than 80% casualties, chiefly from disease.
A sergeant in charge of other troops, Krautz rescued a wounded fellow soldier from New Jersey.
“The guy got shot in the leg, and my dad pulled him to safety,” Linda West said.
Krautz escaped injury at the hands of the enemy, but he shared in the miserable conditions his unit experienced in the wilderness.
“Being in the swamp, it was just unbelievable,” said West. “They used to use cigarettes to burn off the leeches.”
Her father’s helmet was useful for preparing makeshift meals as well as for protection. Melted chocolate and rice were some of the items on his limited menu, she said.
Though he didn’t talk much about his wartime experiences until later in life, Krautz was proud of his military service.
He displayed a tattoo of the Marauders emblem on his shoulder and often recalled that he was “rough and tough in the Army,” his daughter said.
As he’d done during his nearly four years in the service, Krautz persevered as a civilian in Greensburg. Born in 1919 in Derry Township, the son of a Ukrainian immigrant, he worked as a miner and later drove cement and gravel trucks for a Greensburg company.
He became known as a skilled handyman and jack-of-all-trades among family and friends.
“He built his home from scratch, and he would help other people build their houses,” West said. “He was crazy about cement. He did our driveway, the sidewalk and all around our pool.”
Krautz and his wife, Mary, who died in 2013, had three children, one of whom died shortly after birth.
He often took the family to Ocean City, Md., West said, where he swam in the Atlantic — reliving ocean dips he’d enjoyed while in the Army.
In addition to hunting and fishing, Krautz looked forward to golf outings with West’s son, Brian, who now is 47.
“When my son was born, he said, ‘Now I’ve got a golfing buddy,'” West said.
Krautz died at age 66, just four years after retiring.
West keeps his legacy alive by wearing a T-shirt designed for “proud descendants” of Marauders members. Her husband arranged to have Krautz’s name and image included on one of the Hometown Hero banners displayed along downtown Greensburg streets.
Krautz’s military honors include a Bronze Star Medal awarded for exemplary service against an armed enemy and a Presidential Unit Citation.
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