100-year-old veteran shares experiences

MARK MARONEY/Sun-Gazette Sgt. Charles Libby, 100, a World War II Army veteran who served in the 628th Tank Destroyer Battalion, shares accounts with students at the South Williamsport Area Junior-Senior High School auditorium Friday morning.

From sparing the life of a German whose genius in rocket technology led to Americans standing on the moon, to giving blood to a dying girl and meeting the woman’s daughters 65 years later, Sgt. Charles Libby has lived a rich life.

On Friday, students, teachers and administrators got to hear a bit of the 100-year-old World War II veteran’s accounts of action that many claim today to be true heroism. He spoke before a huge American flag in a star-spangled red, white and blue Veterans Day assembly at the South Williamsport Junior-Senior High School.

Standing for much of time at attention, with his arms behind his back, his author and friend, Steven Hunter, an alumnus of the school district, joined in the delivery of the stories, starting out with a scenario and allowing Libby to fill in the gaps as only the centarian could.

Starting with the pre-war years, Libby relayed his time in the Civilian Conservation Corps camps prior to the war, and an occasion that allowed him to spare the life of a dying girl, and then he launched into vivid accounts of the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean and the invasion of Normandy, which began the demise of the Axis powers led by Nazi Germany.

After World War I and with the country mired in the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted a place for war veterans to get work.

“These were hard times,” Libby said. The Civilian Conservation Corps was created for that purpose and expanded to include men 18 to 25 years of age who would be paid $30 per month, and most sent back $25 to their families, keeping $5 for themselves for living expenses and spending, said Hunter, who has written books after listening to first-hand accounts by Libby and compiling his own research.

Many of today’s highways, roads, dams, bridges and forests were planted by those young adults who worked at these camps, Hunter said.

While in the camp, Libby and other men were summoned to Bloomsburg Hospital for a sick girl who desperately required a blood transfusion.

Libby said he happened to be the right blood type and gave a pint and three quarters, and additional blood.

During the ordeal, he recalled the girl’s father saying, “If I had a million dollars I’d share it with you.”

Adding a kicker to the story, the girl survived to grow into a beautiful woman. Libby said he met the girl’s daughters 65 years later and was going to again see them for another reunion.

As the war progressed, Libby joined the 109th Infantry in Williamsport, and went “regular army,” to drive a Scout command car, learn to read maps and prepare for service overseas.

While at Fort Indiantown Gap, Libby and others transferred to a tank unit. At Camp Shanks in New York, Libby and others were quarantined and prepared to board the RMS Aquitania, a British ocean liner of Cunard Line in service from 1914 to 1950. During the trip, a German submarine followed in its wake and for much of the nine days on the seas the ship zig-zagged to avert destruction by the submarine.

He estimated there were 15,000 troops on the ship that ported at Glasgow, Scotland. From there it was a four-hour train trip to England, where they waited with British troops to make landing on the shores of Normandy, France, for the D-Day Invasion.

Once Gen. Dwight D. Einsenhower gave the order, troops were to hit Omaha Beach. Libby said his vehicle grabbed the sand and he put the pedal down and made it up the southern bank. That’s when he said he heard a woman screaming. Her house had a trip wire- and booby-trapped perimeter.

Hunter said Libby drove the command car with bravery and skill. In one instance, he flushed out German soldiers from a hedgerow into the hands of the 47th Infantry.

Another time, a sniper wanted to shoot a German who was surrendering on a ridge and speaking English. Libby stopped the sharpshooter from killing the man, who laid out blueprints and was picked up by an escort.

It was 70 years later when going over photographs of the man that Libby identified him. The German man begging for his life and speaking English was Warner von Braun, an aerospace engineer who had developed the V-2 rocket for Germany and would create the Saturn V rocket for the U.S.

Following World War II, he was secretly moved to the U.S., along with about 1,600 other scientists, engineers, and technicians, as part of Operation Paperclip, where he developed the rockets that launched the U.S.’s first space satellite Explorer 1, and the Apollo program manned lunar landings. His theories on jet propulsion led the U.S. to be able to explore space and send astronauts to the moon in 1969.

“You are looking at an American hero,” Hunter said, with Libby smiling by his side.