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75 Years After World War II's End, an Unexpected Honor for a Boalsburg Veteran

by on May 24, 2020 8:10 PM

It's 75 years after the end of World War II, after the 10 remarkable months William Allison spent serving in Europe with the U.S. Army.

They were 10 months out of a full and interesting life, and at 94, Allison seemingly remembers every detail — the name of every French and German town he entered, the dates, the smallest details of each mission. 

There's a reason why he's recounting all of this — building a bridge out of forest timber in the French Alps, seizing Germany's atomic research center, freeing French workers who were being held as forced laborers — on a sunny May afternoon on the deck of the Boalsburg home he shares with Ursula, his wife of 64 years.

Earlier this year he received a letter from the office of the French ambassador to the United States informing him that he has been awarded the Legion of Honour, the country's highest distinction, for his role in the liberation of France.

"I was surprised and pleased that the French remembered service from 75 years earlier," he said.

A ceremony was to be held for him and other soldiers receiving the recognition. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and it was canceled. Instead, his ceremony consisted of being presented the French Legion of Honour by a FedEx driver.

"That sorted very well with my sense of humor," he said with a laugh.

William Allison received the French Legion of Honour for his service with the U.S. Army during World War II

After the war, Allison pursued a master's degree and worked in theater, a career that eventually brought him to Penn State as a faculty member in the theater department. He took on leadership positions in the College of Arts and Architecture, played a pivotal role in the expansion of performing arts on campus and was a driving force behind the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.

He and Ursula have three daughters, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren, and the couple traveled the world after his retirement.

But before all of that, Allison was a 17-year-old in Illinois farm country who enlisted in the U.S. Army.

After turning 18, he entered active service and was sent to Camp Chaffee in Arkansas for basic training with the newly activated 1269th Engineer Combat Battalion — a group of mostly 18- and 19-year-olds, guided by a few more experienced older men, who sailed to France in October 1944 amid stormy seas, landing at Marseille.

A diligent steward of the history of the battalion, Allison developed a website detailing its service and submitted a memoir of his own wartime service to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. 

The website notes that a French woman offering wine saw the column marching from the dock at Marseille on Nov. 6, 1944 and said, "My god, they're children!"

They would grow up fast. The battalion marched to an improvised camp near Aix-en-Provence while they waited for their equipment to arrive.

"At that camp we did a lot of special training with people who were coming out of combat in the French Alps. So we learned what we were getting into," Allison explained.

After two weeks they traveled to the Maritime Alps on the southern Maginot Line near the border with Italy, where they were in combat duty in support of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team comprised of Japanese-American troops.

They stayed there throughout the brutal winter of 1944-45.

"We did a lot of mine work, laying minefields and clearing minefields that were in our way," Allison said. "We built a timber trestle bridge across a gap that had been destroyed in battle shortly before we came. We went into the forest and cut trees and shaped them and built the trestles."

They named the bridge after Pfc. George Bernay, the first member of their unit to be killed in action.

In March, they came down from the mountains to join the allied offensive in Germany's Rhineland, heading to the battlefront in Frankenthal. Now they had a different assignment.

"We were attached to the 6th Army Group T-Force, which was an intelligence assault force that was after secret records that were needed by the military, and particularly after evidence of wartime crimes and whatever the Germans were doing in atomic research," Allison said. 

Advancing to Ludwigshafen under heavy fire, they seized and held targets at several locations, then did the same elsewhere as they moved with the battlefront over the following weeks.

"We moved in high priority clearance because we had to get in ahead of everything else to be sure that whatever we needed to find and seize that we could get that before it could be destroyed or damaged or lost," Allison said.

In April, the battalion became the combat arm of the Alsos mission, a military intelligence assault force under the command of Col. Boris Pash specifically directed at seizing the Nazi atomic weaponry program. Many years later, late in Pash's life, Allison visited him in San Francisco to discuss working on Pash's biography, but Pash died before it came to fruition.

"He was a very impressive man, very effective in dealing with great problems he ran into all over the place," Allison said.

The battalion advanced to Haigerloch, where the Nazis had moved their atomic research center. There and in other towns they took high-level German atomic scientists into custody and seized the laboratories, along with records, equipment, and large amounts of heavy water and uranium to be shipped back to the United States for the Manhattan Project.

After leaving the Alsos mission, the battalion was one of the first combat units to enter Munich, taking more T-Force targets, as well as disarming mines and other engineering duties. Elements of the battalion would be the first Allied troops to encounter the concentration camp at Dachau.

Allison was sent to seize multiple targets in Munich, including what he describes as the most gratifying among them. He traveled to the city's western edge where a group of French workers were being held in an industrial compound as forced laborers.

"I went and found them and they were waiting for me. I let them out and they gathered around, being very thankful," he said. "One of them brought out a medal he had kept during all the time he had been in there. It was an old medal (dated 1861). He gave it to me. Then they started off walking back to France."

The war in Europe was then coming to an end. Allison was assigned to take a contingent of soldiers and lead a group of German prisoners of war to chalets high in the Alps that had formerly been a rest camp for Luftwaffe pilots. There Allison discovered large wooden chests filled with secret records the German government had sent into the mountains for safekeeping earlier in the war.

Into the summer the battalion remained in Germany and eventually began training for expected assignment to duties in the Pacific. In August they were sent to Belgium, a three-day trek across war-damaged train tracks. When they neared Antwerp, they learned about the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war was over.

Sent back to the United States, Allison was assigned to military police and promoted to the rank of sergeant. He requested to be returned to duty in Europe, wanting to be where the action was, but was instead put in charge of escorting a trainload of POWs to an East Coast port where they would begin their trip back to Germany.

Allison was informed that because of his combat service he was receiving an early discharge. In February 1946, he went to Camp Grant in Illinois where he was honorably discharged.

He immediately enrolled at the University of Michigan where he earned his bachelor's degree, then went to Yale to pursue his master's degree in theater studies.

From there he found work at a theater in Honolulu as a designer and technical director and stayed for several years.

"And then I went to Colorado to meet this one," Allison says, touching his wife's shoulder. "That was 10 years after the war when we finally got together."

"A Wonderful, Long Year"

Ursula Luecke was born in Germany in 1931, and was a teenager in Berlin as the war raged.

"It was scary. We were bombed out completely in 1943," she said. "Then we were evacuated and left Berlin when we heard the Russians were coming from the east."

They found refuge in an area to the west that was occupied by Black American troops and eventually settled in Hamburg.

"My father did not have work. We were poor kids," she said. "They were hard times — hungry, cold."

Ursula went to a boarding school with her brother for four years then went to the University of Cologne.

"In 1955 I came to America for one year as an exchange teacher and it’s been a wonderful, long year," she said.

That summer she took a job as a counselor at a theater camp in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. William Allison also took a job there that summer, and it would not be long before they were married and starting their family.

Allison's work took him to Stanford University, and then Hofstra University in New York. He was only at Hofstra for a year, replacing a friend who was on sabbatical, but he had one particularly notable student: Francis Ford Coppola.

"He wanted to be a scene designer. Somehow he got into different company and ended up becoming a director," Allison said with a chuckle about the director of "The Godfather" films and "Apocalypse Now."

After some time working for a theater lighting company in New York City, Allison accepted a faculty position in Penn State's theater department in 1961. He became department head, assistant dean for research in the College of Arts and Architecture and associate director of the Institute for the the Arts and Humanistic Studies.

He was instrumental in the development of three major performing arts venues at University Park: the Playhouse Theatre, the Pavilion Theatre and Eisenhower Auditorium. He also oversaw the conversion of auditoriums into theaters at Commonwealth Campuses.

And in 1967, he joined with a few others to start a summertime festival celebrating the arts in State College. Allison would help guide the growth of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts over the following years, and though it is not taking place in 2020 because of the pandemic, it has otherwise evolved into a seasonal destination drawing more than 125,000 people.

"There was a group of seven of us who thought it was a good idea and got it started," he said. "I was very surprised and very happy (to see how it has grown)."

In 1989, Allison retired from Penn State and he and Ursula explored the world. They spent a year living in Paris and they've traveled to every continent except Antarctica.

It has been a life well-lived, with memories he recounts in vivid detail.

As he looks back on his time serving with the Army in Europe, he says "it all sticks pretty firm," but there is something that sticks most: his brothers in the 1269th Engineer Combat Battalion.

They stayed in close contact, meeting regularly over the course of decades. Now Allison is the lone surviving member.

"We were a battalion that was mostly made up of 18-, 19-year-old kids with a cadre of older men who had experience and were pretty good at training us to be soldiers," he said. "But those friendships that I formed at that time are very important, and long-lasting."

William Allison received the French Legion of Honour for his service with the U.S. Army during World War II

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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