Sure, Richard Klema and his squad crept through the North African desert by night to avoid the Germans.
Sure, Klema, a driver in the Sixth Armored Infantry Regiment of the First Armored Division, found himself and his buddies in a fire fight with those Nazi forces in that remote desert.
Sure, Klema and his fellow Americans were forced to surrender near Tunis and he spent the last two years and four months of World War II as a maltreated and malnourished prisoner of war.
But, when asked by his daughter Nancy Dye if he was a hero, the diminutive, soft-spoken 92-year-old’s answer was simple and short.
"No," he said. "The heroes are the ones who didn’t come home."
Klema spent the day Tuesday talking to eighth graders at Great Bend Middle School. The students gathered in the school commons area and sat rapt with Klema’s tales of hardship. He also passed around photos of the POW camps where he was held.
Although now living in Porterville, Calif., Klema was in town visiting his brother John and other family members. The Klema boys are originally from Kanopolis, and four brothers served in WW II, all making it back to the states.
His message was one of hope and courage. Also, the opportunity for an education and the other freedoms we Americans enjoy shouldn’t be taken for granted, he said.
They arrived in Algeria in December 1942. Klema’s squad was on patrol that fateful night in February 1943 when them came under attack. "There were tracer bullets everywhere," he said.
After a while, their fate was sealed. Their commanding officer came to them and said "we don’t have the manpower to fight our way out." The decision was made to surrender.
The Germans took them to Tunis, Tunisia, then to Naples, Italy, where they were stuffed into box cars (72 men in cars designed for 48). After two or three days on that train ("the days kind of blend together," he said), they wound up at a camp in Austria and later moved to Germany, near Berlin.
He recalled a skimpy diet of weak, rutabaga soup and black bread, which had saw dust as an ingredient. "I weighed 165 pounds when I went into the service. I was down to about 100 pounds at one time."
The prisoners’ fortunes changed some following an inspection of the camp by the Red Cross. They started getting care packages that contained food items, a chocolate bar and cigarettes.
Since the Germans didn’t have the candy and cigarettes, the Americans traded with them for items such as film, which a buddy of Klema’s used to capture life in the camps. He came home with over 1,400 images and gave copies of many of them to Klema.
He also told of listening to British Broadcasting Company reports on a radio stashed in a secret room the POWs built in one of the barracks.
Meanwhile, the war raged on outside the camps. "We were so close to Berlin, we could see them bombing it 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said. "We could see the flares, the fires. The ground shook."
As the Allied Forces advanced, the POWs were shuffled from camp to camp, once marching through the bitter cold.
Finally, liberation came when Russian forces arrived. Fellow Americans took them to France and they were given the opportunity to spend time in Paris or London. "I just wanted to go back to America. When we came into New York Harbor and saw the Statue of Liberty and the American flag waving, it was so emotional. I just wanted to get out and kiss that ground."
Three days later he was back home in Kanopolis.
"This is just a wonderful opportunity," said Karl McCulley, a GBMS social studies teacher who helped orchestrate the visit to the school. Kids study these events in class, but seeing someone who lived through them brings those events to life.
"He loves to share it," said Dye, a former school teacher from California who helps her father with his talks. "He can talk up to two hours about it." He even has a website, footnote.com/footnotepage.php?id=94111957.
Klema gives presentations all over California and talking about his experiences has helped him, Dye said. "He has some very interesting stories to tell."
Richard and John Klema together took one of the Honor Flights, a program that flies veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the WW II and other war memorials.