Photo Credits: Cleveland
Bob Grobelny, a Westlake, Ohio resident, looks like a typical, kindly grandfather. And while that’s true, this Veterans Day he has a story of extraordinary wartime service to share, like many other American men of his age.
He is 94 years old and is a member of the ‘Greatest Generation’. He dutifully answered the call to duty the same as more than 16 million Americans who did. A veteran World War II, he returned home after the war and forged ahead with his life in Bedford and, for several years in Mayfield Heights, as a spouse and dad. But he will never ever forget his wartime experience.
After graduating from Bedford High School, Grobelny went to work in Cleveland working at Reliance Electric Company and from his accounts, living a normal life, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, propelling America into World War II. He was drafted into the Army and heading to Camp Atterbury in Indiana for basic training by October 1942.
Grobelny’s daughter, Peggy Gongos said she was surprised he was drafted because he was the only child of a widow. That probably wouldn’t happen today but, at the time, they desperately needed men.
After enlistment, he and his fellow soldiers were assigned to the 83rd Infantry Division and spent about eighteen months training in the states before being shipped overseas to Wales, then to the south of England. They were ordered onto ships and were intended to be part of an invasionary force on June 6, 1944. At the time, they had no idea what was about to happen.
But the weather for crossing the English Channel was too rough and they were ordered off the ships. That order may have saved his life. The Allied invasion of France, better known as D-Day, proceeded shortly thereafter, with thousands of troops landing on the beaches at Normandy. It was the largest amphibious naval assault in history and it began the liberation of Nazi-occupied France and northwest Europe. But as the Allied soldiers departed from their landing crafts and headed for the beach, thousands were cut down by German gunfire. Some estimates say Allied casualties on the beaches of Normandy numbered approximately 10,000, with confirmed deaths of more than 4,400.
Grobelny and his unit followed with their landing at Normandy 12 days after D-Day. By that time their landing was uneventful and there was no evidence of the death and carnage of 12 days earlier. But peril wasn’t far away.
As they were marching inland, they were very wary of the hedgerows, referring to the thick, overgrown bushes providing cover for the German soldiers. They just sat and waited and cut us down with machine gun fire. Grobelny’s unit was filled with greenhorns during their first offensive and lost a lot of men, compared with the experienced Nazi troops.
On Aug. 12, 1944, near Saint-Malo, France, an ancient seaport in the northwest of France that was nearly destroyed during the war, Grobelny was wounded in six places. The injuries were mostly from shrapnel, with some of it going completely through his left arm and his right calf. He also had injuries from a piece of brick that exploded after being hit by a shell and also a wound in his chest caused by shrapnel.
He was taken to a field hospital for treatment and later flown to England to recover. Grobelny underwent surgery, and then was returned to France to finish recuperating, which lasted about three months.
Grobelny said his unit had four different captains in only three months during the summer of 1944. Three were killed in action and the fourth was severely wounded. He recalls unceremoniously receiving the Purple Heart. An officer, one of the doctors – they were officers at the time – came by when I was recuperating and handed it to me. He also received a promotion to staff sergeant. He rejoined his unit in France that November and soon they arrived in Belgium. His unit was not aware that they were preparing for another major offensive – the Battle of the Bulge.
Right away we went out on patrol. We were supposed to connect with soldiers from ‘B’ Company to find out what they needed. As we were coming back, we spotted a German patrol. They didn’t see us, this time we were lucky. We were a patrol of 12 and we jumped into some holes and took the Germans by surprise. We killed all of them; then two more Nazi patrols came and we got all of them too, except one soldier, who ran away. None of us was wounded or killed.
Grobelny said Christmas dinner came early that year for all the units that were stationed near the Ardennes forest. This is where the troops were gathering for the Battle of the Bulge. That battle, from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945, was called the bloodiest and largest battle fought by U.S. soldiers in World War II. It was the final paramount Nazi offensive campaign of the war. Conditions were brutal during this battle, as the weather was a major contributing factor, with plenty of cold and snow, which prevented aircraft from reaching the area for several days.
The local farmers described the snow as ‘cow belly deep’. We entered the conflict in relief of a pretty banged-up company and when the fighting finally died down; our unit only had three men left from our total of 40. The others had been killed, wounded, or became sick; trench foot, frozen feet, frostbite, and pneumonia were the most common sicknesses.
We were issued long, heavy overcoats to help fight the cold, but most of the soldiers didn’t wear them because the heavy coats were impeding their movement; fighting was fierce. We lived in holes in the ground and had to send soldiers back to the rear to get food. The fighting was so fierce that I had nightmares afterward for a long time.
But despite the inhumane conditions, the officers made sure the men had food. They were treated with two warm meals per day and also received regular mail delivery. And with our K-rations dinner, we were given four cigarettes and, you know, the food wasn’t that bad.
After the Battle of the Bulge, we were sent to join Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army. They were headed to the Elbe River. The mouth of the river begins at the North Sea, flows through Germany and continues into what is now the Czech Republic. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower told us we were going to stop there, but General Patton said we were crossing the Elbe to meet the Russians, and that’s exactly what we did. He remembers that many of the Russians were singing and dancing. They took pictures with the Americans; our platoon was resupplied and then sent back to the rear. They were sent back to Belgium and eventually to Plzen (or Pilsen) in the Czech Republic, where they were with General Patton’s forces when the town was liberated on 6 May 1945. It was a great day; the residents rejoiced with a parade.
8 May 1945 – V-E Day, the end of the war in Europe. Grobelny’s unit was among the waves of soldiers ready to return home in the fall of 1945. After Plzen, we returned to France. With tongue in cheek, he recalls traveling first class – in a locomotive boxcar with a mattress of hay on the floor. When they got to France, they were informed that their trip for home would be delayed by a stevedore strike in New York City. The union workers agreed not to strike during the war, but the war was over; they hit the picket lines on 1 Oct. 1945.
We were able to get passes during our month-long wait to see some of the sights in Paris. Grobelny saw some of the museums, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower before he finally left Paris to go home.
Surprisingly, it only took five days to sail home, compared to about 15 days when they were ordered overseas and landed in Wales. The time difference is attributed to not having to sail a zigzag route to avoid the Nazi submarines.
The trip home seemed so fast that by Thanksgiving, I was home with my future in-laws eating a turkey dinner.
Grobelny was honorably discharged on Nov. 17, 1945. For his esteemed service, he received many commendations. They include the American Campaign Medal, the African Middle Eastern Service Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
When he got home, his job at Reliance Electric was waiting for him and about six months after his honorable discharge, Grobelny married his girl, Bernice. The couple eventually put down roots in Mayfield Heights, where they lived until about two years ago, when they moved to a retirement community, The Gardens at Westlake. Grobelny lost Bernice in August 2015 after being married for 69 years. They had two children, Peggy Gongos and Walter; six grandchildren and currently, 10 great-grandchildren, with one more on the way.
Grobelny was an active member of the Bedford VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) Post and the DAV (Disabled American Veterans) in Maple Heights before it disbanded. He and his late wife were active in many veterans’ groups and causes and frequently visited the area VA hospitals. After 43 years as a factory worker and inspector, he retired from Reliance Electric when he was 62 years old.
Now he leads a relaxed, simple life and enjoys participating in activities at The Gardens at Westlake and especially enjoys spending time with his family.
From time to time, he also reflects on his service in the Army, the men he knew and befriended and those who didn’t make it home. They were all good men.