PHOENIX — In 1942, 20-year-old John Kolling was living with his family in North Dakota, and wanted to enlist in the military to fight in World War II like his brother did.
His parents said no.
“My folks wanted me to be home working on the farm,” Kolling, now 94, said. “We had 1,200 acres that we were trying to farm.”
But he was eventually drafted into the Army, and found himself behind German lines with the 9th Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge.
“Our water was frozen. We didn’t have water to drink. We were eating snow,” he said. “We had C-rations, but they were frozen solid. There was no way to heat them, because you couldn’t build a fire because you would send smoke signals.”
But his division achieved a great victory in 1945.
“We captured that Ludendorff Bridge. We caught that bridge before they (the Germans) had the chance to blow it,” he said. “(That) cut the war by six weeks.”
His platoon leader was killed while taking the bridge, which spans the Rhine River.
Kolling got emotional as he talked about a sign they placed on the bridge. It read “Cross the (Rhine) with dry feet courtesy of the 9th Armored Division.” The sign is now on display at the General Patton Museum in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Six Army divisions — 25,000 troops, along with their equipment — were able to cross the Rhine into Germany on that bridge until it collapsed 10 days after Kolling’s division captured it. Nearly 30 U.S. Army engineers died in the collapse.
As the Allies made their march toward Berlin, Kolling’s division liberated a camp where the Germans held American prisoners of war. He quickly discovered that his longtime friend, Carl Luckyhouse, was one of the prisoners they were freeing.
“That was a real surprise! He was down to 90 pounds,” he said. “They had very little food or anything. They didn’t have good care, and that’s why he was down to 90 pounds.”
Kolling said that, after the war, Luckyhouse moved to Arizona and lived in Fountain Hills until his death.
Kolling lost a finger during the war when a gun that he and another soldier had confiscated went off.
“To this day, I don’t know how it happened,” he said. “He was going to give it to me and show it to me, and the whole thing was corroded. That slide went off and fired the gun.”
He was in the hospital when he learned he was getting a Purple Heart. Kolling told the Army to instead give it to the soldier lying next to him who had lost a leg.
“They said ‘Here’s your Purple Heart,’ and they were going to put it on my shirt,” Kolling recalled, with tears in his eyes. “I said ‘Put mine on him. He earned it more than I did.’ He died the next day.”
Kolling, who speaks German, was sent to Berlin after the war to act as an interpreter for German POWs who were being released by Allied forces.
Kolling then returned to North Dakota and married his sweetheart, Anne Marie. They moved to Mesa in 1958, where he owned and operated Kolling’s Auto Service until he retired in 1990.
He has been living alone since Anne Marie died in 2008.
His son, Jarel, wrote to the Army and made sure his dad got a Purple Heart to replace the one he gave away, and nominated him as a grand marshal for this year’s parade. He’s proud of his dad and loves to hear him talk about the years he spent fighting WWII.
“Some people don’t even talk about it,” Jarel said. “I had a friend that I went to school with whose dad was in the military. My friend always asked him what happened, and he said ‘It’s a closed story,’ and wouldn’t say one thing about it. I like hearing these stories.”
The 9th Armored Division was done away with after the war, but the soldiers meet for a reunion every year. Kolling said many of his fellow soldiers are gone now.
“Originally, we had about 1,000 veterans from that squadron. This year, there’s 3 veterans at the reunion.”
Kolling said it will be an honor to represent them at this year’s parade.
KTAR will honor each grand marshal of the upcoming Veterans Day parade during our Profiles in Courage series.
- Arizona Army veteran’s dying wish is to get messages of support
- 92-year-old Marine veteran becomes bride’s ‘something blue’
- Former World Series winner’s Scottsdale house up for sale
- Federal court overturns firing of ex-director of Phoenix VA following wait time scandal
- Historic WWII fighter plane, bombers to be on display at West Valley airport