John Reever: New Midway to Normandy and Beyond
by Priscilla Rall
John Wilbur Reever was born in 1922 in Pennsylvania, but the family soon moved to Harney, then to Taneytown, then to Union Bridge, and finally, to New Midway, where Wilbur attended school through the seventh grade. The Great Depression affected every American, especially farmers like Wilbur’s father, John William. Wilbur was the next to the youngest of seven children, and the family’s hardships caused Wilbur to be “farmed out” to Jesse Renner, where Wilbur helped run Renner’s store.
New Midway was a bustling town a hundred years ago. There was a buggy shop, a saw mill, two stores, and a motorcycle shop. Renner even had the first airplane in Frederick County, a bi-plane he named “The Queen.”
Wilbur has fond memories of Jesse saying, “Mr. Renner did as much for me as my father.” Wilbur also helped Renner in making his famous Rose Salve, which, by the way, predates Woodsboro’s Rose Bud Salve.
Wilbur was drafted in early 1943, and, after training, embarked on the Queen Elizabeth, just one of 20,000 soldiers she was carrying to Europe. After seven days, they docked in Scotland, and Wilbur found himself part of the 5th Division, the “Red Diamond,” in the 2nd Battalion in an anti-tank unit. After more training, they were shipped to Normandy, landing on Utah Beach July 9, 1944.
The Americans fought fiercely in the hedgerow country, as they pushed on towards St. Lo. This is where James Austin Null from Frederick was killed. He is buried at Mt. Olivet by the WWII Monument. Once, Wilbur took refuge from German snipers in a small burrow under the hedgerow. He read passages from a small Bible with a metal cover inscribed, “May this keep you from Harm.” He eventually convinced his buddy in sharing the burrow to read a few Bible verses as well. When they finally got to St. Lo, Wilbur described it as “completely leveled.” Many French civilians had been killed, as well as the enemy.
Later, near the Argonne Forest, Wilbur recalls being “shelled like hell” while they were positioned behind an infantry unit and were taking out a German observation tower. Tragically, one of the enemy shells took out an entire squad dug in right next to Wilbur. Their bodies were laid out side by side, covered by tarpaulins, and Wilbur’s company had to walk by their deceased comrades to get to the mess tent for chow.
After liberating Reims, Wilbur saw the townspeople shaving the heads of the females who had fraternized with the Germans. Next, they took Metz where Wilbur saw his buddy, Johnny Baxter, up on the bridge over the river sniping at the Germans on the other side. Wilbur told him he was crazy, but later joined him. When the Americans finally crossed the Rhine, six soldiers, just a half a mile in front of him, were captured.
The Americans travelled quickly across Germany. The men slept in shell holes or on the ground. They were taking 30 to 40 miles a day, as they were fully motorized. They moved into a town by a small creek, and Wilbur had guard duty from 2:00 to 4:00 a.m. “It was colder than living hell,” he said. The next night, they stopped at a small farm with a manure pile by the barn. Wilbur dug a hole in the pile to sleep in and was as warm as toast that night. Later, his unit was stationed at a rest area, waiting for replacements to join them. Laying down in his sleeping bag, he was surprised to find four inches of snow covering him in the morning. In later action, Wilbur felt a sharp nick on his back. It turns out that a German bullet had ricocheted and hit his back. He kept the spent lead bullet as a souvenir.
As the war in Europe came to an end, Wilbur’s company liberated one concentration camp, and then had to guard it. They kept the prisoners from getting out and foraging for food or taking vengeance on the civilian German population. Wilbur will never forget the sight of the Jews and Poles in the camps who were just skin and bones, but were still alive. While they were there, Wilbur’s unit uncovered a huge mass grave that Nazis had dug quickly in an effort to destroy the evidence of their horrific crimes.
Wilbur also witnessed a huge column of German civilians, women and children and German Red Cross nurses, trying to reach the American lines to escape the Russians. Tragically, our agreement with the Russians was to turn over any Germans in their territory at the end of the war. The Americans tried to stop the column and turn them around, but they balked, knowing what their fate would be as the Russians thirsted for vengeance for the destruction of their country by the Germans. Wilbur was ordered to man a machine gun atop a jeep and to force the Germans to turn back. He asked what was he to do if they refused, and his officer told him, “Then shoot them.” Fortunately, he was not forced to follow that order. That night, the Americans could hear the screams of the women as the Russians ravaged them and the sounds of bullets as if in combat. Fires lit up the night. Wilbur pitied the Germans that night, as he knew that many of the soldiers had their families with them and the innocents were suffering along with the guilty.
Wilbur returned to the United States on a furlough, while waiting to be sent to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. It was a great relief to learn of the dropping of the atomic bomb and the subsequent surrender of the Japanese. SSgt. Reever was discharged October 1945 with a Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and the European Campaign Ribbon with five stars. He returned home to New Midway, and, in 1949, he married the love of his life, Audrey Young. He continued to run the garage after Mr. Renner’s death. Audrey and Wilbur had two sons, Dwight and Dave, and four grandchildren. Sadly, Audrey passed away in 2008.
John Wilbur Reever is one of the last of the Greatest Generation, and his story told to me as part of the Frederick County Veterans Project is saved for posterity. Thank you, Wilbur, for your service to our country.
John Wilbur Reever, 1945.
John W. Reever, we thank you for your Service.