At 101, Leo Thoennes is a member of a small and shrinking club: He’s one of the few World War II veterans still alive.
But there’s more than meets the eye to the Federal Way resident, who has lived at the Village Green Retirement Campus for about seven years. He recollected his service and the lessons he’s learned over the last century in an interview for this Veterans Day edition of The Mirror.
Thoennes is a member of the Greatest Generation, and like many young men of his time, he fought in World War II and was later called back into service in the Korean War.
During and after his military service, Thoennes trudged through the cold and the mud of the Battle of the Bulge, helped rescue survivors from a Nazi concentration and slave labor camp, led General Douglas MacArthur on a tour at Fort Lewis and visited former President George W. Bush for a breakfast at the White House.
In his post-war life, Thoennes married his wife LaVerne, who passed away in 2013, raised a family, and built a career at Weyerhaeuser.
“Obviously, our family’s very proud of him,” Leo’s son John Thoennes said.
Along the way, Leo Thoennes has credited his quality of life to both his family and his uncanny luck, which has followed him both during and after World War II.
He suffered no injuries during the war, drew a three-day vacation to Paris just before the Battle of the Bulge, and years later even won a free trip to England on British Air with his wife — “everything paid for,” in a fancy hotel room with a view of Buckingham palace.
“I have been extremely lucky all my life,” Thoennes said. “It just goes on and on. It’s totally amazing.”
Born Aug. 19, 1921, Thoennes grew up in a small Minnesota town of about 100 people where everyone spoke German. He didn’t learn English until he was five years old.
He moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin after high school and took a job as a bellhop at the high-end Milwaukee Country Club, and soon became the assistant manager after his higher-up left to fight in World War II.
“Me! A 20-year-old kid,” he said with a laugh. But Thoennes himself wasn’t far behind in enlistment.
He was at work the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor and enlisted about six months later in 1942, at 20 years old. After training in Texas, Los Angeles and North Carolina, Thoennes picked up skills in maintaining anti-aircraft gunnery and was assigned to the 555th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion of the Army, also known as the “Five-by-Five.”
THE GERMAN FRONT
Thoennes sailed overseas to Britain with 18,000 people aboard the Queen Elizabeth. He crossed the English Channel and joined the war effort after landing at the beaches of Normandy, though by this time the fighting had moved on from that area.
Joining the 104th Infantry Division, Thoennes and his fellow soldiers travelled through France and Holland before heading east toward Germany. (The 104th is still active as a training division and coincidentally is based at Fort Lewis.)
“I was informed we were the first American troops to actually enter German soil, at Aachen,” Thoennes said.
But Thoennes was about to get one of his lucky breaks — as the war entered a lull, his battalion commander announced that a few troops would be allowed to visit Paris for a three-day getaway. They drew names, and Thoennes was one of the 15 selected.
“It was a glorious time,” Thoennes said. “I went around sight-seeing. I love Paris. In my estimation, I think that’s the most beautiful city in the world.”
But he returned to one of the ugliest times of his life: The Battle of the Bulge, which was the last major German offensive campaign and the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. It started Dec. 16 and ended a little over a month later with Hitler’s withdrawal of German forces across the region.
“It was the worst part of my whole life,” Thoennes said. “I’ve never had anything that bitter before. It was cold weather, snowing, and we were not prepared. We only had one blanket to keep warm at night.”
Miserable weather kept their planes out of the sky, and with Americans losing ground against the German’s Hail Mary effort, Eisenhower pled with General George Patton to lend help.
Patton eventually promised to ask God for better weather, and had a chaplain print and distribute a prayer to the soldiers in the Army. (Thoennes still has his copy.)
Christmas Day arrived and the sun came out, bringing the soldiers the sweetest gift they could ask for: A fighting chance to break the Nazi offensive.
“It was beautiful, and the sky was full of airplanes,” Thoennes said. “Now, for a change, they could see.”
Thoennes and other soldiers pushed east past the Rhine as the Germans retreated, and eventually met with Russian forces. It was during that time at the end of the war that Thoennes and his fellow soldiers liberated the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp near the German town of Nordhausen.
Serving as a slave labor operation, Dora-Mittelbau prisoners were forced to assist with the construction of the V-1 bomb and the V-2 rocket. As the Nazis lost ground in April 1945, they sent most of the surviving inmates away on death marches or in crammed box carts to other camps. Prisoners who could not keep up were shot from behind by guards, according to the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp memorial, and more than 1,000 were murdered in a field barn that was set on fire.
By the time the Americans arrived, the extent of human suffering was apparent at Nordhausen, where many of the remaining inmates were dead or dying.
Thoennes, hardened by his experienced in the war, was not shaken by the horrific sight of dead bodies stacked together.
“By that time, I had seen a lot of combat, and I had seen a lot of bodies,” Thoennes said. “And I go into this place. I’m not happy about this, but it didn’t bother me. Dead bodies was a usual thing for me.”
It was far more disturbing and sad, he said, to see the emaciated survivors, who Thoennes and the other soldiers helped escort to hospitals. Images of those survivors taken by American war correspondents are among the most well-known testimonies to the crimes of the Nazis, according to the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp memorial.
During the war, Thoennes made plans to meet his old friend, the former assistant manager of the Milwaukee Country Club, in Paris.
Thoennes went to the agreed-upon hotel and waited, but the his fellow service-member never showed up. Thoennes eventually learned that he’d been killed.
AFTER THE WAR
In the end, Thoennes “never got a scratch” during his time in the military.
After the Allied victory in Europe, he volunteered to continue serving in the front against Japan.
But those plans were cut short — along with the lives of about 200,000 people — by the detonation of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Six days after the second bomb fell, Japan surrendered. The war was over.
Thoennes spent another year in France serving in the military police, where he helped oversee the return of troops home. He then came home and studied at Oregon State University to become an engineer.
But soon after, he was called back to serve during the Korean War. Since he’d already seen combat, they gave him a position overseeing security at Madigan Hospital at Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord).
In that role, he met General Douglas MacArthur, who was visiting the military hospital. As head of security, Thoennes was tasked with escorting the general around the facility.
“I was so surprised (by MacArthur),” Thoennes said. “I had always heard he was an arrogant, really miserable kind of person. But he went ‘round that hospital, so tender and kind to those guys laying there in bed wounded. I just couldn’t believe that was the same guy.”
As a mechanical engineer, Thoennes went on to have a three-decade career at Weyerhaeuser, and had plenty of opportunities to reflect on his service. In 2006, he and the remaining members of the 555th — about 40 people — were invited to the White House for breakfast with former President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Welch Bush.
As one of the few remaining veterans of World War II — and one of the only, if not the only remaining soldier of his battalion, Thoennes is nearly as old as the Veterans Day holiday itself.
Like many soldiers, the cruelty and brutality of war showed him the value of peace.
“I went in there (basic training) a nice, peace-loving guy. After a couple months of that training, they had me trained … (to be) a killer. And you went into combat and were required to be a killer. And when you come back from that, you’ve gotta transition back to a non-killer. And that’s a bit difficult.”
A LIFE WORTH LIVING
At 101, Thoennes still uses his computer and a smartphone, trades stocks, cracks jokes and dances. Though legally blind, he uses a magnifying glass to help see, and he’s an avid photographer.
It’s partially good genes — many in their family have had long lives, John Thoennes said — but no less important to Leo’s longevity is his physically and mentally active lifestyle.
“I kind of push him this way: Don’t sit around,” John Thoennes said. “He’s a very active person. That doesn’t mean he’s running a marathon, but he’s out walking and going (places).”
When they visit the grocery store together, Leo walks instead of using a motorized cart. They don’t park in the disability spaces and instead take the time to walk a little further to the store.
“He never complains about that,” John said.
And he also has one thing in common with nearly all of the centenarians this reporter has interviewed: A love of dancing.
“That’s because in order to dance, you’ve got to hear the music,” Leo Thoennes said. “It goes into your mind, and your mind converts it to your motions. I dance every day, because it teaches me something.”
Nearly 80 years after the end of the biggest and deadliest conflicts in history, and reflecting on what Veterans Day means to him, Thoennes isn’t afraid to give his honest opinion.
“I hate wars, and I’ll say that with a passion,” he said. “Today, if they wanted to draft me again, I don’t know if I would even go in. I look at wars as killing people and destroying things, and those two things are not to my liking. … I guess I’m not too unusual on that score. But there is no way that you can really appreciate that unless you actually were there.”
Both things can be true at once: War is hell, and if it can be avoided, it should be. And at the same time, the sacrifices of service members ended the evils of Hitler’s so-called Third Reich.
Everyone processes that service differently. Leo’s son John explained his thoughts in terms of how he introduces his dad to strangers.
“I’d say, ‘My dad’s a WWII vet. He fought 195 days on the frontline, coming ashore.’ I’d run through the bullet points,” John Thoennes said. ” ‘He also freed the prisoners at Nordhausen.’ If you were to be a Holocaust denier, I (would) think you should sit down and talk to my dad for a while.”
When he shared his father’s story with a group of Jewish people on a bus to New York, “they practically carried him on the bus,” John Thoennes said.
“They made sure he got seated. They were just all over him. It was so much respect for a guy who freed Jewish people from the camp. (And) it wasn’t just Jewish people (whom) he freed.”
In 2015, John asked if Leo could have a place to sit while watching the Auburn Veterans Day parade go by. He got more than just that: Leo was invited to ride with Mayor Nancy Backus at the front of the procession.
“That is the over-the-top kind of reaction that he gets from people who understand what he went through,” John Thoennes said.