ENNIS — Life has taken Willie Laza from his hometown of Ennis and the family farm to the far corners of the world and back again.
Drafted at the age of 18, the 85-year-old recalls landing at Omaha Beach and coming ashore six days after D-Day in Normandy. His division was attached to a combat battalion attached to the French Army. They battled their way to Strasbourg, France and into Belgium.
Laza served in the 313th Infantry, 79th Cross of Lorraine Division, A-Company.
Laza, whose blue eyes sparkle as he leafs through a binder that holds details of his military service during WWII, recalls some events more clearly than others. Each statement triggers another as he winds back through a war-torn countryside so foreign to an Ennis farm boy.
“We landed at Omaha Beach and from there went to the front lines. I was the No. 3 man in the line. I carried a heavy weapon, a B&R with 16-shell,” he said. “It was bad, but something you had to do and do the best you could. I wished I had been back home in the cotton patch.”
He stands from his easy chair to retrieve a framed certificate he received from the French government in recognition of his service engaging in combat in Normandy 1944-1945.
Saying he was injured in shelling at Hatten, Germany, Laza removes his cap and runs his fingers through his gray hair, pointing out the site of the injury.
“They said if it had been any deeper, I wouldn’t be here. I didn’t know what was going on for about two days – it was like I was drunk,” he said, saying he recovered in a hospital in France.
They crossed the Rhine River and landed close to Belgium. He shared memories of a time in the German woods when they found a priest and decided to hold a church service.
“After the service we started singing and the Germans started shelling,” he said. “We were singing ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’ ”
Their voices had given away their position and he said they just kept singing.
“The Germans are not as bad as people think. The good Germans were real good to me,” he said.
Moving on, he said they eventually arrived in Czechoslovakia, where they stayed to patrol as the war was winding down.
“When everything slowed down, they started separating the men to send to Japan,” he said, saying that since he had been wounded he didn’t have to go and was moved to the First Division. “We stayed in Czechoslovakia a month or two. I got to know the people there and it kind of felt like home. They had a dance for us.”
He wanted to visit an area to the north where his father was raised, but couldn’t because the Russians were there.
He leads the way to another room where his medals and photos of the time long past are displayed – and he points himself out in a group photo of his division. He finds a large color photograph of the family farm and his face lights up with pride, but his eyes betray him as he drifts back to those green rolling hills.
Laza returned to Ennis in 1947 and went to the RC Cola plant where he had been working when he was drafted in 1943.
“They said I would have a job when I got back, but they lied. There wasn’t a job so I stayed here trying to find a job,” he said, saying the only work he found was hauling ice and, after fighting, he wasn’t doing that, so he enlisted in the Air Force. By then the war was over and matters were heating up in Korea.
“They gave me my rank back – they needed men,” he said. “I went down to San Antonio.”
He was stationed in a refueling unit in Bermuda, which he compared to living in Hawaii before the war, when it was paradise-like.
He also served at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico and Edwards Air Force Base in California when it was reopened.
When he left the Air Force in 1956 he went to work for the post office and commuted to Dallas from Ennis, where he still resides with his wife Hazel. The Ennis farm is still in the family. He said his niece bought half of the property. As a boy, they raised cotton on the farm but says now days it’s just hay.
Contact Rebecca at email@example.com or call 469-517-1451.