WWII soldier's writing recalls horrors of war

Albert Zbranek probably should have died during World War II, either from his scrapes with the German army or from the 20 months he spent as a prisoner of war - and maybe he did a little bit.

Zbranek, who was born in Sweet Home, lived for a time in Shiner and attended school in Moulton, died April 19 at 97.

He and his family lived through the Great Depression but lost the more than 70-acre family farm. He spent time in the Civilian Conservation Corps before joining the Army in 1941.

Zbranek came home from the war with his body mostly physically intact, but his mind and his spirit were another story.

"He never was the same when he got out of the service," said Lillie Mae Schaffer, Zbranek's 82-year-old second cousin whom he lived with the last three and a half years of his life in Lolita.

Zbranek, who often wrote down memories of his military service, recalled one particular day near Salerno, Italy.

He wrote, "We crawled out on the beach ... out of the landing craft, head-on machine guns chattering, hand grenades exploding, cannons blasting, parachute flares being shot up to light up the area around 4 a.m.

"Only seconds after I started crawling out, a stream of machine gun bullets whistled over my back. Had I been walking, I would have been shredded to pieces."

Shafer, 15 years Zbranek's junior, got to know him when he returned home from the war.

"He took care of his mother, who had a stroke, for 16 years," she said. "He basically wanted to be left alone. He had no sister, a brother died when he was young, and he never married or had any children.

"He just wanted a simple life. He wouldn't even make a living will because he said he wanted to make his own decisions. He'd lost his freedom once and was never going to lose it again. That's a lesson he taught all of us.

"He took care of his house and his garden. He was into photography and nature and science. He loved to read."

And he loved to write.

Another memory of a close call from the Army paramedic - "One evening advancing to a wooded area, a sniper's bullet struck my helmet at the crest. ... I would not be here today had it not been so high."

Unfortunately for Zbranek, not every bullet missed him.

Zbranek recalled the day the Germans hit their mark.

"Sweat poured off me in pain. I said to myself, 'My God, what now?' This would require stitching."

And he stitched himself up, but, "unfortunately that day the enemy managed to capture me. I was out of ammunition."

Shafer said her mother's cousin related stories about being a prisoner of war and being marched from camp to camp as part of the Death March when the Allied Forces were moving in.

"Men were mistreated, and the weather was bad. Made to work in the garden in the cold and rain. We were freezing. Some men were sick. You felt like you wanted to die," Zbranek wrote.

"On the march ... my feet were frostbitten and numb. Felt more like stove pipes, filled with sand. Heavy."

After the Russian army made its way into Italy and the Germans fled, the prisoners came under Russian control.

Zbranek managed to escape.

"After the Russian army came through and liberated our camp, three of us escaped on picked up bicycles, rode for four days following pasture, trails and some roads," Zbranek wrote. "Heading westerly, our minds on the U.S.A., we were free!"

In Zbranek's later years, Shafer saw firsthand the effects of the wounds, the prisons and the death march.

"The last six months of his life, I doctored his legs every day from the toes to the knees," she said.

And Zbranek recounted post-war trauma, too, in his writings, "I'm miserable 24/7 except if I can sleep I might not know about my problems for awhile. Even when I sleep my lower legs, feet and toes are active with neuropathy, tingling, numbness, poor circulation."

Shafer said remembering her cousin's service to his country is important.

"I appreciate his service so much because I think young people don't realize the sacrifices that they made," Shafer said. "We need to show them kindness, if nothing else."

Zbranek was aware of the importance of the work he and his fellow soldiers were doing.

He wrote, "I was in a group of prisoners who fought three wars in one; first, the regular war; second, the war of prisoners of war without weapons, which lasted for more than two Christmases; and third, the inhuman death march of three weeks in midwinter.

"The guys were talking about how all the servicemen are preventing that crazy Hitler from invading the USA and keeping the people safe, fed and comfortable while we suffer and died in battles."

Just as he loved to garden, Zbranek used a floral metaphor to describe why America soldiers gave their all in World War II.

"We servicemen planted the flowers of freedom. Every person living in the USA ... benefited from our work, suffering and dying."