William Lane Jr.: “You Figured Your Number Was Up”
William “Billy” Lane Jr. would have you believe he’s no hero. In fact, Lane reserves that honorable designation for the young men he fought alongside and commanded during World War II.
Quickly moving up the ranks to second lieutenant, Lane was a member of the 71st Infantry, Company I, Third Battalion, which saw action in southern France and eventually made its way to Austria near the Italian border before the Germans surrendered.
His responsible nature, aptitude and quick mind in the trenches were valuable assets in helping lead the company across both the Rhine and Danube rivers, surviving 12 hours of nonstop artillery fire and keeping the German forces in check.
Responsibility was something learned long before Lane was drafted by the United States Army in the early 1940s, however. Growing up in the Great Depression as the eldest of eight children born to William Lane Sr. and Verna (Park) Lane, the native of Smith Valley, Huntingdon County, was always called on to help out the family.
In 1937 William Lane Sr., a game warden previously known as a refuge keeper and travelling game protector, brought his family to Hustontown where they settled in and still call home. By the time he was a junior and senior at Hustontown High School, Lane’s responsibilities had grown immensely as he doubled as student and school janitor. Without any community buildings in the area, Lane was responsible for staying late into the evenings for gatherings and meetings and arrived in the wee hours of the morning to stoke the school’s furnace.
Lane, 89, recalled he was at school on a Sunday afternoon sweeping up in preparation for Monday’s classes when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He says he knew then it was only a matter of time until he was called into action.
“I felt sure I would be, unless I had a medical condition of some sort,” said Lane. “From the time you’re drafted to the time you get back, you’re scared.”
Lane noted of the busload of men who would travel to the Altoona Armory, a total of 37 would be accepted and ordered to report to New Cumberland on February 28, 1943. The soldiers, which would include many local young men, would leave by train days later and eventually arrived in Fort Lewis, Washington state.
“There are three ways to do things: the right way, the wrong way and the Army Way,” said Lane of his first military lesson. Basic training would be tolerable, aside from picking up cigarette butts, and the men would learn about mountain/forest maneuvers before moving on to Camp Phillips, Kan., for desert training.
On Labor Day 1943, Lane boarded the USS Monticello in Boston Harbor for what was a “hot trip” to Cherbourg, France. “That was the loneliest, longest walk ever up that gangplank,” stated Lane. “I felt like jumping into the water, but I know they would have fished me out.”
Arriving in France, the ship was unable to drop anchor due to the harbor being filled with sunken vessels from D-Day. The infantry was forced onto landing crafts and sent a shore. “They transported us into the apple orchards. We weren’t far off from the hedgerows, so we could see the damage,” Lane said. They experienced the devastation firsthand in October of 1943 when they were sent to the frontlines in southeastern France. Assigned to trenches used 26 years prior in World War I, the company wasn’t on-site more than 30 minutes before Lane, a third squad leader, and four other men were sent out to reconnoiter the area. Walking through the woods “like a bunch of deer,” the group walked into an ambush.
“There were a bunch of Krauts. One threw a hand grenade. We called them potato mashers,” Lane recalled. “I was instructed to go back to the trenches and get a machine gun. I must have set a world record for ground crawling. I could see the bullets hitting the earth all around me.”
“I was sure I would get hit in the head or in the back when I was going up and over that trench. I slipped over the other side and landed on a dead German. We didn’t exchange any words,” said Lane. All four pinned in the ambush were able to make it to safety.
“I got baptized pretty quickly,” he added.
Lane’s group would get sent back to that same trench several times. “Toward the end I didn’t want to go back. There were men who had been there but weren’t there any more. It was hard. It was a team effort,” he said.
The company moved on to Landry, France, on November 13 where its mission was to take Hill 313 at all cost. “We were the only company within the whole division to meet our objective on the first day,” Lane said. “While going around the backside of the hill, we were subject to gunfire. I helped a fellow soldier to his feet after he had fallen. He said I gave him the best Christmas present ever. I had saved his life.”
Fast forward to January 1, 1945, Operation Nordwind would be the “last eruption” of World War II. Reports indicate a total of 295,000 French and 125,000 American troops were involved. The effort resulted in 29,000 American casualties and 7,000 deaths.
Lane said that New Year’s Eve his group trudged through 8 inches of snow only to be pinned down by German machine gunfire for six hours. The company remained there for six days and managed to hold on to the railroad track they were safeguarding.
On Feb. 15, Lane’s company was instructed to help straight the division lines. In several areas the Germans had reportedly broken the battle line and were bewildered by the surprise encounter.
Late the following month the crew pushed onto Manheim, a river port and eighth largest city at that time with a pre-war population of 500,000. Using a threeprong attack, the Third Battalion went through the city and captured the municipal airport on the outskirts.
They met little opposition, according to Lane, who then moved on to Austria, another occupied territory. Staring up Fern Pass, a mountain pass in the Tyrolean Alps, the infantry caught the Germans off guard. However, during an exchange of gunfire, Lane’s gun jammed and a fellow soldier came to his rescue. In fact, the same soldier saved his life a second time when he grabbed a hand grenade that had landed next to him and launched it back at the German forces.
Having received several promotions since being drafted, including a battlefield promotion, Lane was now a second lieutenant. “It was a lot of pressure taking care of everyone,” Lane said of his fellow soldiers, who were a family away from home.
Having advanced to the Italian border of Austria by the time Germany surrendered, the troops assumed occupational duties, manning road blocks and helping with the evacuation of displaced individuals.
“It was a relief,” he said. “The worse part of it all was the fear of death. Every time you went back to places, there were people who weren’t there any longer. You figured your number was up.”
Lane would eventually be one of 16,000 military men and women to board the Queen Elizabeth that would take him across the choppy seas to New York. He received an honorable discharge from the United States Army on January 27, 1946, but remained in the active reserves until October 2 later that same year.
“By the grace of God, I got through it,” said Lane of his war time action.
Lane returned home with a bevy of accommodations and accolades. Among those are a Purple Heart with three oak leaf clusters for injuries suffered on December 13 and December 17, 1944, and May 2, 1945; a bronze star medal; a good conduct medal; a European African Middle Eastern Theater Campaign Medal; three bronze stars; an American Theater Ribbon Victory Medal; and a Rifle sharpshooter.
Falling back into the routine of home life and picking up the responsibilities he left behind, Lane returned to Fulton County a mature man. Quickly catching his eye was Elva Knepper, who was a family friend and, at the time of his departure for the war effort, was nothing more than a shy girl peering from behind her mother’s skirt.
The duo struck up a quick romance, which ended in Elva marrying “The Pea Man.” Lane had obtained a job upon his return as a field liaison between the Greencastle Packing Co. and the local pea farmers.
“She’s still my sweet pea,” he jokes of his wife and companion of 62 years.