“What do you do for a living?” the drill sergeant at Fort Jackson, S.C., asked the young mountain man.
“I fish. I squirrel hunt. I farm,” Wilce McGaha said. “I do whatever I can to get by.”
The sergeant sent him to wait off to the side, and by the end of the day, McGaha was surrounded by a group of young men just like him – men that lived off the land. These men were selected for special training: they would become members of one of the Allied units the Nazis feared most – the Ghosts of Patton’s Army – and they would help liberate Europe.
Weeks after the successful invasion of Normandy, Patton’s 3rd Army joined the battle in France, and marched across Europe with the Allied forces fighting the Nazis. McGaha went with them.
Being part of 2nd Cavalry meant traveling fast and light. Their M4 Sherman tanks were lightly armored and no match for heavy German tanks and 88 mm guns. They should have been annihilated. Quickly overrunning lines in battle, McGaha was often behind enemy lines cut off from Allied support. These were the times that he and the other “ghosts” would wreak havoc on the Germans, and either force a Nazi surrender, or blast their way back through enemy lines to their own units.
The ghosts often inflicted so much damage that McGaha and the others were not allowed to see what they had done.
“They told us to never look at the aftermath of a battle,” he said. “Sometimes we did. It was horrible.”
McGaha’s first battle was in France.
“They wanted us to take this town the Americans had taken two or three different times…there were horses and cows lying out in the field, dead,” he said.
After about two hours into battle, on foot, he went inside a partially standing building.
“I was scared to death…and inside was a mother and baby face down in the dirt. They were probably killed about 10 days ago or more,” McGaha said. “That stayed with me the entire war and with me to this day.”
McGaha often saw German refugees who were starving. One afternoon, 20 to 30 civilians, mostly women and children, came by in a wagon and asked to spend the night next to his unit.
“That night we watched them kill their horse so they could have something to eat,” he said. “The next morning they packed up the remaining food and kept on moving.”
During his years of service, McGaha displayed unrelenting bravery fighting for his country, his unit and his fellow soldiers. In that time, he was given two opportunities to return home – once when he was wounded in combat and after his brother was killed as they both fought in the Battle of the Bulge. The loss of his brother was devastating, but McGaha wouldn’t leave his unit.
“I didn’t want to leave,” he said. “I could do more for my family by fighting in Europe. At least that way I could send as much money home to my family as I could. I was staying until it was over.”
Throughout the war, McGaha retained his compassion for people – all people, even the enemy that had killed his brother. When asked about the things he regretted and the things of which he was most proud of regarding his service, there is no hesitation, and no time to pause or reflect.
“The thing I regret the most was killing those who were innocent, those who were forced into service in the Army,” he said. “A lot of them did not have a choice. I hate that.”
“I am most proud of being able to save the folks I could save.”
The transition back to civilian life was not easy.
“My nerves were shot,” McGaha said.
His family says that after the war, anytime he was startled or touched unexpectedly, McGaha would go into “combat mode,” which made life especially hard for him and his family.
During the ‘40s and ‘50s, Veterans who were suffering from PTSD received little understanding or sympathy from the Veterans Administration (at the time) or society in general. Finally, after years of mental suffering, McGaha sought treatment and was given the counseling and therapy he needed.
Today, Wilce McGaha lives a quiet life not far from his childhood home, in a nondescript house that blends into the landscape of western North Carolina.
The battles of Europe left him almost deaf, and time has slowed the once spry mountain man. He is a joy to be around and almost always positive, grateful, and full of life. He thanks the Lord – and the VA – for the comfort and help he receives.
When he remembers his time in the 2nd Cavalry, his face carries a look of sadness and burden…but then, he’ll tell a story about meeting some ladies in France, and his smile returns.
Randy McCracken is a U.S. Army Veteran, former medic, computer specialist, and now a My HealtheVet Coordinator for the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, NC.