From GMI to WWII

Jan 30, 2009

A call for stories from alumni who served in WWII resulted in a flood of remembrances from across the country. These two personal accounts are the first in a series honoring Kettering/GMI alumni who delayed their education to support the cause for freedom.

This article is the first in a series honoring the commitment and service of our graduates during WWII, and reminds readers about the debt paid to secure our nation’s freedom. Special thanks to “The Flint Journal,” from which portions of Smith’s account are derived for this story. 

When the first call for stories about service of GMI students during World War II first appeared The “Kettering Perspective” magazine several months ago, we received many amazing accounts. Here are two of those stories that our alumni shared with us:

Kenneth W. Croner ‘50

Croner, an Army Private, was part of a massive group of soldiers heading for Europe when he learned that his assignment would switch from ordinance to infantry. “Needless to say, there were 5,000-plus long faces about that day on the ship when we heard it on the loudspeaker,” he explained.

After his group reached France and completed their infantry training, they were immediately assigned to Co. G, 333 Infantry, 84 Infantry Division, which was already in combat on the Siegfried Line in Geilenkirehen, Germany, one of the most challenging combat zones of the war. But soon after their arrival and engagement in combat, he and his unit were pulled from the front line and transported to the Ardennes of Belgium, otherwise known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Once he checked in at G Company after his arrival at the Ardennes, officers told Corner’s group that they would engage in combat the following morning and to wait until then in their fox holes.

“We could hear the gunfire and see action in the distance. Suddenly, we were under a mortar barrage,” he said. As he sat on one side of his fox hole, a mortar landed on the other side, but fortunately, it was a dud. His good luck would last a long time.

Once, he had a bullet rip through his pant leg, knocking him down, but he received no wound. At another point, a bullet struck his ammunition bandolier and he thought it would rip his neck off, but again, he was not wounded.

A bullet also clipped off the lapel of his coat, but he did not receive any wound. And while searching through a building looking for the enemy, an 88 mm round fired from a German tank exploded in an adjacent room, collapsing the building and trapping him—yet he received no wound.

“There were so many close calls until my luck finally ran out as we approached Hanover, Germany,” he said.

As his unit crossed an opening, a number of them were caught out in the open and fired upon with machine guns and mortars. Croner was wounded four times almost simultaneously: A bullet tore through his helmet and knocked it off; another bullet hit his right leg, knocking him down; another bullet hit his right hand and then a piece of shrapnel entered his back below his shoulder, passing down though his chest, destroying his lung, severing an artery returning blood to his heart and blowing out several ribs.

“As I lay on the battlefield, each time my heart beat, I could see a bubble of blood come out of my chest,” he said, adding that “it was imperative I get help, but the bullets were blazing and there was no way for anyone to come to my aid.” Fortunately, he was able to drag himself inch by inch, until combat medics came to his aid.

Although he endured difficult surgeries, he returned home and following his discharge from the Army, attended Kettering/GMI. He retired from his position as superintendent of Industrial Engineering for Fisher Body in 1981 and resides in Grand Blanc with his wife, Anne.

Robert N Smith ‘49

Robert N. Smith of Flushing, Mich., made a trip back to hallow ground in 1995 when he returned to Chartres, France.

It had been nearly 50 years since the last time he was in Chartres. During the war, he served as a U.S. Army Air Corps B-26 bomber co-pilot and pilot. On his 60th mission as a member of the 387th Army Bomb Group, 557th Squadron, his plane was hit with heavy flak, which obliterated the right side, shredding the right engine.

As Smith struggled to keep the plane from rolling to its side, he pulled the emergency red bell to release the bombs and allow his crew to bail out through the bomb bay doors. Then Smith jumped out, tumbling head over heals, waiting as long as possible during his fall before pulling his rip cord to get to the ground quickly and avoid being shot from German troops below. However, his plane now hurtling toward the earth, one engine blown off, suddenly rolled and dove into his path, barely missing him during his fall.

He landed in an open field, disposed of his chute with his plane burning in an opposite field, and quickly crossed a road to a wheat field. Soon, a truck of German soldiers pursued him, fanning out across the field slowly with rifles at the ready and caught him.

Eventually, he was transported as a prisoner of war to Stalag Lutf III in Sagan, Germany, now Zagan, Poland, where he spent the next eight months along with thousands of other American prisoners. He lost significant weight.

He dreamt of chocolate. He slept on a bag filled with wood chips and ate primarily from food provided by the Red Cross. “We were cold all the time,” he said, adding that the only time they were warm was when prisoners “were sitting in a stack of wood chips, dreaming of food.”

Then in January 1945 as the Russians closed in on Berlin, Smith and the rest of the prisoners were forced to march and were eventually taken by train to Stalag VIIA in Moosburg near Munich. More than 10,000 POWs made this trek of more than 62 miles. Many of them died during the March. According to Smith, the men tried as best as possible to help those who struggled the most and often held them up as they marched.

Conditions at Stalag VIIA were worse: no food and constant cold. Then, on April 29, 1945, General George Patton’s 3rd Army liberated the camp. “Prisoners all over the place were cheering and crying,” he said in a “Flint Journal” article published about his return to Chartres some 50 years after his liberation.

When he returned home, Smith was 40 pounds lighter. He enrolled at GMI and earned his Industrial Engineering degree in 1950. He and his wife, Elizabeth, raised three boys and in 1980 Smith retired from GM as a manager for projects and work orders at AC.

Eventually, he knew he had to return to France and the POW camps. In 1995, he did return, but was hesitant. When his plane was shot down, a bomb had fallen in the town, killing 53 people and Smith was unsure if it came from his bomber.

Thankfully he found out that it was not from his plane. During his visit, a Frenchman, who was 14 and witnessed Smith’s plane going down, hung banners welcoming Smith and his navigator. The man also gave Smith metal pieces that he had saved from the plane, hoping that Smith might one day return.

“I was overwhelmed,” Smith said. Today, he and his wife Elizabeth live in Flushing, Mich., and enjoy spending time with their family.  

By Gary J. Erwin