CARMICHAEL, CA - Ernie Magri remembers the last months and days of World War II as he helped the U.S. Third Army fight its way into Germany.
"I was working at a shipyard and I could've asked for a deferment, but I never did. I says, if they call me, I'll go," Magri said. "And that's exactly what I did."
After training and a troop transport ride to southern France, Magri soon found himself working as a mechanic as U.S. troops began to battle across the German's Seigfried Line, where Magri quickly won a Bronze Star for bravery under fire as he fixed a damaged armored car under intense shelling by German 88-millimeter guns.
"A tree burst hit a tree and I want to tell you something, it was that close, that close," he said, holding his thumb and forefinger about a half an inch apart as he described the shrapnel raining down.
Magri recalled a strafing in France when his convoy was hit by two American fighter planes that had been captured by German forces. "And everybody who had anything, a slingshot, a BB gun or anything, was shooting at them and by God, we got them. There was two of them," he said.
Now blind in both eyes, at age 97, Magri can see back perfectly to the day he helped liberate thousands of Allied prisoners at the Mooseburg POW camp, where 115,000 prisoners from Allied armies were being held captive. "They were so darned happy, so happy to see us," he said.
Magri helped one former British prisoner of war by also liberating a German bicycle. "He says, 'thanks for the bicycle.' And he says, 'which way is England?' and I says, that way. He says, 'that's the way I'm going. Thank you.' I don't know if he ever made it or not," Magri said with a chuckle.
He was also witness to the horror of the Dachau death camp which he visited soon after the war ended. "They showed us the shower where they had them go in and take off their clothes, and then they turned on the gas and they were all in there and they gassed them to death," he said. "It was pretty personal."
Magri recorded the town-to-town fighting of the winter war on a captured German camera, keeping a stash of French cognac hidden for the day when he finally learned the war was over. But when the time came, it was all but forgotten.
"We couldn't drink it. We were just so elated. I mean, you don't have to worry any more."
When Magri returned from the war to Northern California, he worked as a police officer and sheriff's deputy. He later spent many years selling Harley Davidson motorcycles at his brother Armando's dealership in Sacramento.
By Dave Marquis, email@example.com