WHEN Herman Zerger Jr. of Woodsfield enlisted in the U.S. Army in the early 1940s, he could never have guessed that he would receive France's highest honor more than 65 years later.
Yet, Zerger was one of 10 U.S. military veterans living in Ohio to be honored this week for their service during World War II. The 84-year-old Monroe Countian received the Knight of the Legion of Honor medal Wednesday during a Statehouse ceremony.
Created by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 19th century, the legion is France's elite national merit society. Foreigners cannot be inducted but are routinely made honorary recipients.
Honored in addition to Zerger were Chester Collins, 87, Chillicothe; James Dane, 87, Dayton; Rex Hoon, 88, New Concord; Thomas Jennings, 85, Milford; Steve Jezioski, 84, Valley City; Louis Prince, 90, Cincinnati; Harry Ruggles, 84, Stowe; Arthur Shumate, 85, Middletown; and Joe Thompson, 86, West Carrollton.
Referring to Wednesday's ceremony, Zerger said, "I really had a good day. I'm so honored and really overwhelmed. My thoughts and reflections are going back to my combat days and to the comrades that are still over there. I lost so many friends, not a day goes by that I don't reflect back on my Army days."
This marks the second consecutive year that Zerger has been honored in Columbus. He was inducted last November into the Ohio Veterans' Hall of Fame Class of 2008.
A former prisoner of war, Zerger was one of the founding charter members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 5303 where he served as trustee for 40 years. He also is an active participant in Ohio Chapter No. 1 American Ex-Prisoners of War in addition to being involved in several other veterans' groups.
"Active" seems an appropriate word to describe the Monroe County octogenarian. "Whatever I undertake, I try to do a good job," said Zerger. "Politics and my Army organizations are what keep me going. I want to participate and be involved as long as I can. I hope it's for a long, long time."
With more than 46 years as county Democrat chairman, he is the longest serving county chairman in Ohio and also the oldest, still active county chairman.
Zerger's military service began when he entered the Army in January 1943. "I knew I was going so I volunteered," he said.
His service was in Italy and France, and he regards the invasion of Salerno, Italy, as the worst fighting he encountered.
"At Salerno, we were the first troops to invade Hitler's Europe. They had us bogged down for a long time. It was rough fighting," Zerger said in an earlier interview with The Times Leader. That invasion was in September 1943, and the Monroe Countian said the group had the third highest in casualties of any outfit in the European fighting.
He became a prisoner of the Germans Feb. 3, 1945, while his company was fighting on the Rhine River and had been assigned to take Herrlishem in the Alsace-Lorraine area, a much-disputed territory between Germany and France.
During the 4-mile trek between Oberhoffen and Herrlishem, snipers were abundant, and the Americans were fighting with tommy guns and rifles while the Germans were attacking with big tanks. He was among the seven survivors from a platoon of about 40 men.
Zerger recalls the SS Troops as Hitler's tall, blond elite troops who didn't treat the prisoners very well. The Monroe Countian, who lost about 50 pounds as a prisoner of war, said Red Cross parcels weren't received by the POWs because the Germans kept them.
Lacking food, the prisoners sometimes were served grass soup featuring grass and weeds. Even the broth was green.
The Monroe County also remembers when the prisoners had to rebuild the railroad tracks, which had been bombed by the Allies. "I had no gloves and when I picked up a railroad tie, it would pull the flesh right off my fingers," he said.
Prisoners were kept on the move because the Allies were closing in, he said. Zerger was in the last camp to be liberated, and that was in May of 1945. After being trucked to Salzburg, Austria, the group was taken to Rheims, France, the Allied Supreme Headquarters commanded by Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower.
Sailing from LeHarve, France, the soldiers landed in the United States in June of that year. After a diet of grass soup, Zerger apparently had better things in mind. He said, "When I hit land, I kissed the ground and headed to the PX for ice cream."
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