BEAVERDAM — Sixty-eight years later, Fred Andrews flavors his World War II stories with a pinch of gallows humor. Stories like his first brush with death. It took place near the Italian coastal town of Anzio, about 20 miles south Rome, in the closing days of January 1944.
“We were conducting a strategic withdrawal — we were running like hell,” said Andrews, of Beaverdam, who celebrated his 92nd birthday Thursday. “The Germans tried to run us off, and we had the cooks digging big holes in a position maybe a hundred yards behind us. “Well, headquarters had somebody digging. I don’t know for sure it was the cooks. We stayed up where we were until nearly dark, when they attacked us again.”
Andrews’ unit was falling back to the freshly dug holes when a mortar shell landed in mud about six yards in front of him and exploded as he passed.
“The dirt and the mud kept most of the shrapnel away from me,” he said. “That probably saved my life.”
But one piece tore clean through Andrews’ left leg. It knocked him down. He managed to get back up.
“I walked back to the M.A.S.H. unit,” Andrews said. “The doctors were all excited because I was still on my feet. They said, ‘Anybody who can still hold a gun and walk around belongs out there on the front!’ And I said, ‘I’m shot through the leg here!’ It went on like that until a sergeant said, ‘Hey, he’s got blood running down the back of his leg. We better look at him.’ Then the doctor was surprised that I could still walk.”
Andrews was a sergeant in the Army’s 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He served nearly three years from 1942 to 1945, first in North Africa, then in three engagements in Italy and finally during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, France and Germany.
“I missed the Normandy Invasion on D-Day [June 6, 1944], but I’d already invaded Europe three times by then,” Andrews said.
That’s no idle boast. The 504th PIR parachuted into Sicily in July 1943, a full 11 months ahead of D-Day. They were part of amphibious invasions of the Italian cities of Salerno in September 1943 and Anzio in January 1944.
“Anzio was a bad place. We went in as a [500-man] regiment and came out as a [100-man] platoon,” Andrews said.
The Anzio engagement left Andrews’ unit decimated. The Army attached the 504th to the 82nd Airborne Division, then opted to put the unit in reserve during D-Day to rest and replenish its ranks with new soldiers. Andrews, meanwhile spent the first half of 1944 in a Naples, Italy, hospital recovering from his leg wound.
The Anzio engagement also gave the 5o4th its nickname, “Devils in Baggy Pants,” after an entry in a German officer’s diary describing his enemy’s tenacity. The 504th’s conduct at Anzio also earned it the Army’s first presidential citation of the war.
The 504th rejoined the 82nd Airborne in the fall of 1944, in time for the Battle of the Bulge counteroffensive across Belgium and into western Germany.
The Bulge dealt Andrews another brush with death.
He was in a combined cavalry-infantry engagement — that means soldiers riding on top of tanks, flushing pockets of German resistance out of the hedgerows — when they ran into a division of soldiers fleeing in the distance.
“I was laying in the shadow of the tank turret, aiming through my rifle sight. One of them turned around and shot back.” Andrews said. “I got a piece of shrapnel in my eyeball. They said the whole side of my face crinkled up and was bleeding. My buddies thought I’d been shot in the head. One of them said, ‘Well, damn, they shot old Andy!’ And the other one said, ‘What was the idiot sitting up there for, anyhow?’ It knocked me off the tank, too. I bet that German sniper marked one off, thinking for sure he shot me, too.”
In all, Andrews received seven battle stars for his service. After the war, he returned to Beaverdam and got a job with Lima Telephone and Telegraph — a job he held 35 years until retirement.
It was while repairing a downed line during a sleet storm in 1946 that he met Orpha Johnson, of Wauseon, north of Napoleon.
“They sent me out there to repair the wires, and I came back with a wife,” he said with a laugh. “It wasn’t quite that quick, but almost.”
They were married 60 years and raised three children. Orpha died in 2006.