The Army ‘messed up’ all Kenneth Woods’ plans

Gardening, fishing, travel and spending time with his dog Lilly are some of WWII veteran Ken Woods’ favorite pastimes. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

Although the Army messed up all his plans, Kenneth Woods made the best of it. He and a buddy arrived in Florida in 1937, young and full of big ideas but with very little money, he said. They were only 17 years old and planned to open a catfish house. The day he turned 18, a notice came from Uncle Sam telling him to report for duty. The very next day he was on a bus headed for Camp Blanding where he was to be inducted. They asked him which branch of the service he preferred, and he said he immediately said Navy because he loved the water and fishing. The man grabbed his paper and stamped it with the word Army in big letters. “Wait a minute!” he cried. “I said Navy.” But, the man said, “Sorry, the Navy has met its quota today.” He went outside and “boo-hooed” for a while, he said, but then he had to get over it because he was in the Army now.

It took three days to take this bridge out and put in another one, said Sgt. Kenneth Woods. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

He went to Paris, Texas For basic training, and it was 110 degrees! They trained him very thoroughly with guns, mines, minefields. They were taught how to lay a minefield. He was trained to be a combat engineer, and his job was to build bridges across streams and rivers so forces could cross. He said they could throw across a river 100’ wide in a day’s time and have troops and artillery crossing within 16 hours start to finish. They were pontoon bridges connected together with large boats with male and female couplings. Each time they hooked up a pontoon, they loaded it up with TNT, ready to blow, just in case.

WWII Veteran Kenneth Woods wears his dress blues in 1945. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.
Veteran Kenneth Woods met his wife while delivering newspapers when he was a boy. Her mother thought he was a handsome young fellow and told her daughter not to let him get away, and she didn’t. They were married for 74 years before she passed away. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

They took a troop train from the camp in Texas to New York where the snow was six inches deep on the ground and icicles were hanging from the eaves of the houses. They soon boarded a ship headed for England. About three days out, they ran into monster waves and almost everyone was sea sick. The waves were 50-60 feet high. “Talk about rockin’ and rollin’,” he said. “We had it.” He was one of the very few who was not sick, and he credits that to his love of the water. He said he has never been sick on the water, ever. The wind was reported to be 90 mph for two to three days. They had 25 ships in their convoy, he said, but they didn’t lose a single one.

This photo of Sgt. Kenneth Woods was taken in Germany in 1945. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

About two weeks after leaving New York, they landed in South Hampton, England, where they stayed for about a month to build their forces before crossing into France. Finally, the day came when they went over, but he said, they did not go on D-Day. They went about five days later. Their job was to neutralize unexploded bombs, shells, mines and booby traps. There were many bombs that hit the ground without exploding, and he had to take a block of TNT and climb down into the crater where most of them ended up, put the TNT up against the bomb and light the fuse then climb out and run as fast as he could. He was young and fast, he said. His little outfit, the 158th Combat Engineers, were good, he said. They did a good job. They did what they were trained to do.

They moved on up to Saint Lo, France where the Germans had formed a line where Normandy connected to the mainland. The Germans were trying to keep them out of France, he explained. When they broke through those lines, he saw 4,000 bombers and fighter planes dropping bombs and strafing the German lines. It worked, and they made it into Paris.

While in Saint Lo, in the town square, they sat with two truckloads of nearly 100 men and were trying to get their bearings when all of a sudden, he heard a plane, and from the sound, he knew it was not one of theirs. “Click, click, click, click, click, click,” he heard. “HIT THE DIRT,” he yelled to his men, and they all dived to the ground. Thank God there was a little ravine behind them, he said, and the bomb went in there. That was close. They had to get out of there fast.

After that, he said, things got really bad. They were tasked with cleaning out the booby traps and unexploded bombs and mines. They saw things he does not want to think about let alone talk about.

He remembers the night a lieutenant ran in at 1 a.m. screaming for everyone to wake up and get into full battle gear. That was the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, he said. They went right to the front lines. Everything was on fire. Three companies were spread out at the cross road east of Bastogne. A captain told him to take a jeep and driver and reconnoiter what was at the front that they couldn’t see. He went up Skyline Drive, and he could see the Germans on the Siegfried Line. He counted 25 Sherman tanks within a mile and a half. With that, he went back, and the Germans came pouring in.

About 2 a.m. a captain ordered him to go into Bastogne for help — to beg for tanks or any reinforcement they could send. About 4 a.m. they saw a jeep bringing one tank destroyer and four Sherman tanks. “I said a prayer,” he said. “It was hell on earth.” By daylight, everything that could burn was burning. He got as far back as he could and dug a fox hole and got in it. Finally, he heard the words, “Sgt. Woods, we got orders to leave here.” He jumped up and saw what was left of his platoon on a halftrack, and they called him to jump on. He grabbed hold of another man and they got out of there as fast as they could.

This is a photo of the new tank Kenneth’s Woods’ platoon received in Babenhausen, Germany during WWII. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

The Germans were in high gear and unified once again. “They meant to kill us,” he said. “But once the skies cleared, we mopped them up. They ran out of fuel. It wasn’t easy. They really should have left Russia alone. Our bombers put a hurting on Germany. We spared the farming villages but the industrial villages were just piles of brick. It was tough to see. We let the Russians have Berlin. The Germans had beat the Russians so bad, and it was payback time, I guess.”

Immediately after the bombing stopped, the German people came out of their homes, and they were some of the nicest people you would ever want to meet, he said. They were decent, good and kind, and they all loved American music.

Seventeen-year-old Ken Woods came to Florida to start a catfish house, but the Army crushed his dreams. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

After the war, Mr. Woods returned to Florida and settled with his wife Natalie in West Palm Beach where they raised their two children, Sandra and Woodrow. Kenneth and Natalie Woods were married here in the Okeechobee courthouse after they were told they were too young to get married in Palm Beach. At the time, he was 17. They had “borrowed” a friend’s mother’s car. They met in 1935 when he was delivering newspapers and delivered one to Natalie’s home. Her mother advised her not to let him get away. They became friends and were married in 1942. They were married for 74 years until Natalie passed away a few years ago. They loved to travel and traveled extensively throughout their marriage. Mr. Woods moved to Okeechobee in 2015. He will be 95 years old in October.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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