Subscribe for 33¢ / day

He can laugh about it now, but at one point during World War II, U.S. Army Pfc. Paul Priest was pronounced dead.

His parents back home even received the official letter that he was killed in action, and they began to plan a funeral.

"But it was actually a guy with the same name in a different location," Priest said now with a chuckle. 

And at 87 years old, Priest makes sure to take advantage of the precious gift of life daily. He is writing a memoir and shares the story of his experiences during WWII with anyone willing to lend an ear. 

Today marks a special anniversary for Priest. Sixty-eight years ago, on March 7, 1945, he participated in a battle for a bridge that is credited with helping accelerate the end of the war.

The Ludendorff Railway Bridge at Remagen was the last remaining bridge over the Rhine River after German forces had destroyed all the others.

Priest believes he is the last surviving member of his platoon within the 9th Armored Division which helped take the bridge by knocking off explosive devices the German forces set to prevent Allied troops from advancing into Germany on their continued offensive that began on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Shortly after taking the bridge, Allied troops and heavy equipment poured across until the bridge for 10 days until it collapsed, Priest said. The war ended just a few months later.

Only 17 years old and 130 pounds, Priest had the foresight to document much of his time at war on a small fold-out Agfa camera as he made his way from village to village doing reconnaissance patrols for the 9th Armored. 

He still has the camera and keeps his black-and-white photos in an album. The destruction and atrocities of war appear in photos of dead bodies on trains, in fields and in ovens at concentration camps. 

Priest said he tried to insure the album, but it is priceless. He also has photos he took from German soldiers depicting scenes of life behind enemy lines. Priest also keeps postcards with German writing, Nazi propaganda flyers dropped by plane over the German countryside, and flags with swastikas that hung from the vehicles of officers. 

Priest had a much closer experience to death near the end of the war when his metal helmet was torn apart by a wooden bullet. 

He said towards the end when supplies were running low, the German troops were shooting anything they could including wooden bullets, bolts and nails.

Priest was knocked out but survived. After many years in the flooring business in Michigan and raising three children with his wife of 68 years, Priest and his wife moved to Deadwood and cared for children in a foster home. Priest and his wife now live in Box Elder.

Get news headlines sent daily to your inbox

Besides writing his memoirs, Priest keeps busy as a crossing guard for the children of Wilson Elementary School at the busy intersection of Mount Rushmore Road and Franklin Street. At Christmas, he plays Santa Claus for several groups.

He loves more than anything to share his story with young people so that it may be remembered. He gives talks at The Journey Museum and classrooms throughout the Black Hills.

"A lot of people don't even think about war," said Priest. "But if we had not fought WWII, a lot of you wouldn't be here." 

He hopes the younger generations will not forget all the opportunities and freedoms they owe to the hard work of members of what has been called the greatest generation. 

A generation of veterans that is quickly fading as the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates over 550 American WWII vets die every day. 

"This is history, and I'm trying to keep it alive," said Priest. "I can't just sit around and do nothing, because when you stop doing what makes you happy, that's when you die." 

Priest hopes to return to Germany for the first time since the war this summer.

Contact Jennifer Naylor Gesick at 394-8415 or jennifer.naylorgesick@rapidcityjournal.com.

0
0
0
0
0
You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.

Tags