At 101, Leo Thoennes is a member of a small club that is shrinking: he is one of the few veterans of the Second World War still alive.
But there’s more to it than meets the eye for the Federal Way resident, who has lived at the Village Green Retirement Campus for about seven years. He recalled his service and the lessons he learned over the past century in an interview for this edition of Veterans Day.
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 up for service in the Korean War.
During and after his military service, Thoennes endured the cold and mud of the Battle of the Bulge, helped rescue survivors of a Nazi concentration and forced 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 died in 2013, raised a family and made a career at Weyerhaeuser.
“Obviously our family is very proud of him,” Leo’s son John Thoennes said.
Along the way, Leo Thoennes attributed his quality of life to his family and his uncanny luck, which followed him through and after World War II.
He suffered no injuries in the war, took a three-day vacation in Paris just before the Battle of the Bulge, and years later even won a free trip to England on British Air with his wife – “all paid”, in a fancy hotel room with a view of Buckingham Palace.
“I’ve been extremely lucky all my life,” Thoennes said. “And it goes on like this many times. It’s totally unbelievable.
Born August 19, 1921, Thoennes grew up in a small Minnesota town of about 100 people where everyone spoke German. He only learned English when he was 5 years old.
He moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin after high school and took a job as a bellboy at the upscale Milwaukee Country Club.
He was on the job the day Pearl Harbor was attacked and enlisted about six months later in 1942, at age 20. After training in Texas, Los Angeles and North Carolina, Thoennes learned skills in maintaining anti-aircraft artillery and was assigned to the 555th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion of the Army, also known as name of “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 on the beaches of Normandy, although by this time the fighting had left that region.
Joining the 104th Infantry Division, Thoennes and his comrades traveled through France and Holland before heading east towards Germany.
“I was informed that we were the first American troops to enter German soil, in 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 soldiers would be allowed to visit Paris for a three-day getaway. They drew names, and Thoennes was one of 15 selected.
“It was a glorious time,” said Thoennes. “I went sightseeing. I like Paris. In my opinion, I think it’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 began on December 16 and ended just over a month later with Hitler’s withdrawal of German forces from the area.
“It was the worst part of my whole life,” Thoennes said. “I’ve never had anything so bitter before. It was cold, it was snowing and we weren’t prepared. We only had one blanket to keep us warm at night.
Miserable weather kept their planes from flying, and with the Americans losing ground to the German effort Hail Mary, Supreme Cmdr. Dwight Eisenhower begged General George Patton to help.
Patton eventually promised to ask God for a better time and had a chaplain print and distribute a prayer to Army soldiers. (Thoennes still has his copy.)
Christmas Day has arrived and the sun has risen, bringing the soldiers the greatest gift they could ask for: a chance to break the Nazi offensive.
“It was beautiful and the sky was full of planes,” Thoennes said. “Now for a change, they could see.”
Thoennes and other soldiers pushed east across the Rhine as the Germans retreated and eventually encountered the Russian forces. It was around this time, at the end of the war, that Thoennes and his comrades liberated the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp near the German town of Nordhausen.
Serving as a forced labor operation, prisoners at Dora-Mittelbau were forced to help build the V-1 bomb and V-2 rocket. As the Nazis lost ground in April 1945, they sent most of the surviving inmates on death marches or in carts piled up to other camps.
By the time the Americans arrived, the scale of human suffering was evident at Nordhausen, where many of the remaining inmates were dead or dying.
Thoennes, hardened by his wartime experience, was unfazed by the horrific sight of piled-up corpses.
“At that time, I had seen a lot of fighting and I had seen a lot of bodies,” Thoennes said. “And I go to this place. I’m not happy about that, but it didn’t bother me. Corpses were a regular thing for me.
It was much more disturbing and saddening, he said, to see the emaciated survivors whom Thoennes and the other soldiers helped escort to hospitals. The images of these survivors taken by American war correspondents are among the best-known testimonies of Nazi crimes, according to the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp memorial.
AFTER THE WAR
Ultimately, Thoennes “never got a scratch” during his time in the military.
After the Allied victory in Europe, he volunteered to continue serving on the front line against Japan.
But these plans were interrupted – along with the lives of around 200,000 people – by the explosion of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Six days after the fall of the second bomb, Japan capitulated. The war was over.
Thoennes spent another year in France serving with the military police, where he helped oversee the return of troops home. He then returned home and studied at Oregon State University to become an engineer.
But soon after, he was called up to serve in the Korean War. Since he had seen the fight before, they gave him a job supervising security at Madigan Hospital at Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord).
In this role he met MacArthur, who was visiting the military hospital. As head of security, Thoennes was tasked with escorting the general around the installation.
“I was so surprised (by MacArthur),” Thoennes said. “I had always heard that he was an arrogant and really miserable person. But he went around this hospital, so tender and kind to these injured guys in bed. I just couldn’t believe it was the same guy.
As a mechanical engineer, Thoennes pursued a three-decade career with Weyerhaeuser and had many opportunities to reflect on his service. In 2006, he and the other members of the 555th – about 40 people – were invited to the White House for breakfast with President Bush and First Lady Laura Welch Bush.
As one of the few remaining WWII veterans – and one of the only, if not the only remaining soldier in his battalion, Thoennes is almost as old as Veterans Day itself.
Like many soldiers, the cruelty and brutality of war showed him the value of peace.
“I went to (basic training) a nice, peace-loving guy. After a few months of that training, they trained me… (to be) a killer. And you went into battle and you were asked to be a killer. And when you come back from that, you have to be a non-killer again. And that’s kind of hard.”
A LIFE WORTH LIVING
At 101, Thoennes still uses his computer and a smartphone, trades stocks, cracks jokes and dances. Although he is legally blind, he uses a magnifying glass to help see, and he is an avid photographer.
These are partly good genes – many of their family members 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 it this way: don’t sit still,” John Thoennes said. “He is a very active person. That doesn’t mean he runs a marathon, but he walks and goes (places).
When they go to the grocery store together, Leo walks instead of using a motorized cart. They don’t park in handicapped spaces and instead take the time to walk a little further to the store.
“He never complains about it,” John said.
And he also has one thing in common with almost all the centenarians this reporter has interviewed: a love of dancing.
“It’s because to dance, you have to hear the music,” said Leo Thoennes. “It enters your mind and your mind converts it into your movements. I dance every day, because it teaches me something.
Nearly 80 years after the end of the largest 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 will say that with passion,” he said. “Today, if they wanted to enlist me again, I don’t even know if I would participate. I think of wars as killing people and destroying things, and I don’t like those two things. …I guess I’m not too unusual about that. But there’s no way you can really appreciate that unless you’re actually there.
Both things can be true at the same time: war is hell, and if it can be avoided, it should be. And at the same time, the sacrifices of the military put an end to the evils of Hitler’s so-called Third Reich.
Everyone treats this service differently. Leo’s son John explained his thoughts in terms of how he introduces his father to strangers.
“I would say, ‘My dad is a World War II veteran. He fought 195 days on the front line, landing. I would review the chips,” John Thoennes said. “He also freed the prisoners from Nordhausen. If you were to be a Holocaust denier, I (would think) you should sit down and talk to my dad for a while.
In 2015, John asked if Leo could have a place to sit while watching Auburn’s Veterans Day Parade. He got more than that: Leo was asked to ride with Mayor Nancy Backus at the front of the motorcade.
“It’s the kind of overreaction he gets from people who understand what he’s been through,” John Thoennes said.