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Unexpected echoes: Lodi man's anniversary trip leads to World War II connection

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Posted: Saturday, November 11, 2017 8:30 am

When Mike Kaminski and his wife Becky took a cruise on the Rhine River, they weren’t expecting a journey through family history.

“My wife and I wanted to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary,” Kaminski said.

But the river, which begins in Switzerland and flows along the French-German border before winding through Germany and the Netherlands to the sea, also trickles through several World War II battlefields.

Viking River Cruises offers several day excursions exploring the region’s history, including an optional “Colmar Pocket” trip to visit sites where the war was fought and a memorial at the Sigolsheim War Cemetery in Alsace, France.

“My wife said, ‘Maybe we should take this. Your dad fought in World War II,’” Kaminski said.

He was reluctant. His father, George August Kaminski, hadn’t talked much about his service in Europe during the 1940s. Kaminski knew his father had served in France, but wasn’t sure where.

But Becky was insistent.

“The night before, they kind of gave the final call, and Becky, my wife, said, ‘We’re going to take this tour,’” he said.

They couldn’t have known that in a few short hours, they’d be walking in George Kaminski’s footsteps — quite literally.

Stories untold

George Kaminski was never very forthcoming about his time as a soldier.

Mike Kaminski knew his father served in the 411th Regiment, part of the 103rd Infantry Division, but aside from a couple of stories his father had shared over the years, he didn’t know much more.

The stories he did tell were terrifying. In one, George and his fellow soldiers were digging foxholes. German troops were nearby, and they knew shelling was about to begin. George was determined to dig right until the shelling began, Mike Kaminski said.

When it did, he jumped into the hole and two more men jumped in on top of him. The man on top was killed, and the one between George and the dead man was badly injured.

Another time, George Kaminski mentioned that his unit had helped to liberate one of the Kaufering concentration camps, part of the Dachau complex. When the men broke the gates open and walked through with the medics, emaciated prisoners rushed over to cling to their liberators. A pregnant woman grabbed George and wouldn’t let go.

When soldiers liberated the camp, the ground was littered with bodies, many witnesses reported. The 411th made the German citizens in the surrounding towns bury the dead. George Kaminski was in his early 20s.

“After that, he said, he was just spent. He’d never seen anything like that in his life,” Mike Kaminski said.

Kaminski had always wanted to find out more, but it wasn’t something in the front of his mind when he and Becky headed off for their anniversary in Europe.

“This was a dream that I had somewhere way off in the future. I had no idea that we were going to get even close to where my father was,” Kaminski said.

Uncovering the past

The cruise tour was led by a French man named Malcolm.

“He was Mr. History,” Kaminski said.

The tour visited Heidelberg and Mannheim in Germany, and the “Colmar Pocket” region of Alsace in France. Malcolm knew the history so well that when he mentioned the Vosges Mountains, where Kaminski knew his father had served, he decided to ask where the mountains were.

“Why do you ask?” Malcolm wanted to know.

When Kaminski shared that his father had fought there with the 103rd, the tour guide’s eyes widened. Then he told Kaminski that the tour would be visiting several of the places where the 103rd had stood just over 70 years ago.

The tour group visited the Sigolsheim War Cemetery, located up on a hill overlooking the Alsace Plain. As they got off the bus, Malcolm pulled Kaminski aside to show him a view of the plain, which stretches to the Black Forest and the Vosges Mountains.

“He says, ‘Your father came right through those mountains, pushing back the Nazis,’” Kaminski said.

George Kaminski and his fellow soldiers in the 103rd helped to liberate nearby towns of St. Die, Muehlhausen and others. Malcolm shared a few details of the battles that helped to drive the Nazis from the region.

Through the winter of 1944 and 1945 — one that was far colder than usual in that part of Europe — soldiers from the United States, Britain, France, Africa and beyond fought to dislodge Germany’s 19th Army.

The fighting took place along the Siegfried Line — the heavily militarized border between France and Germany.

For Mike Kaminski, it was the first time he was getting many details about his father’s time in France.

“It was a very emotional time for me,” he said.

At the cemetery was a war memorial erected to honor the troops who gave their lives to free the region from Hitler’s forces. One of the memorial’s four panels showed the unit insignias of each force that fought for the Allies there.

“As I walked up there, I saw my father’s shoulder patch,” Kaminski said.

More stops on the journey

The cruise stopped at other sites that the 103rd had visited. As they traveled along the Rhine, Mike crossed George’s path again in Worms, Germany.

The fighting along the Siegfried Line was some of the toughest in the war. Not far from the Battle of the Bulge, soldiers fought in the snowy winter from November of 1944 through the early spring, when they finally began pushing into Germany.

“Once they fought through the Siegfried Line, they came to a town called Worms, and the Germans had blown up all the bridges,” Kaminski said. “So the engineers had to build their own pontoon bridges to cross the Rhine.”

Soldiers and artillery alike crossed the rickety, makeshift bridges to continue their path into Germany. After the war, the bridge was rebuilt.

“They replaced the bridge with a modern steel structure, but they left one of the huge pillars (from the old bridge),” Kaminski said.

From there, the 103rd headed to Heidelberg, another stop on the cruise.

Better known nowadays for its castle dating to the 13th century, in the spring of 1945 it was a landmark for Allied troops that showed they were gaining ground in the war.

“Heidelberg had been pretty well bombed out at that point. They were basically chasing the Germans,” Kaminski said.

After Heidelberg, the cruise’s path and George Kaminski’s 1945 journey diverged. By then, Mike Kaminski had a new understanding of his father.

A new interest in history

The trip rekindled Kaminski’s interest in his father’s military service.

“My father only told me a few stories, the Vosges mountains and the shelling,” he said — a mention of the Siegfried Line, the story about liberating Kaufering.

But when he got home, Mike Kaminski pulled out his father’s military book and began researching the war.

He found out that the 103rd Infantry Division was recognized by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for helping to liberate the Kaufering camps. He found a video on YouTube called “Trail of the Cactus” that follows the division’s movements during the war. He’s learned about the towns and villages that the 103rd helped to free from Nazi control in France. He followed the division’s path from the Vosges Mountains to Innsbruck, Austria.

And, unfortunately, he found that his father’s personnel records were among those burned in a 1973 fire at the National Archives and Records Administration.

He’s just sorry his dad isn’t around to talk to anymore. George Kaminski passed away 20 years ago, on March 5, 1997. He now rests at Cherokee Memorial Cemetery in Lodi, where he was buried with full military honors.

“I kept thinking in the back of my mind I would love to take Dad over there to show him how grateful the French people were,” he said.

Kaminski is grateful his wife pushed him to go on the tour, and for the chance to reconnect with his dad’s history.

“It was an experience that will live with me forever,” he said.

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