In April 1943, in the middle of World War II, 18-year-old Gene Wentz received a draft notice at his Bedford County home. While Wentz could have legitimately been excused from service to work his family's farm in Dunkard Hollow, he willingly and eagerly reported for duty.
A smallish teenager, Wentz was nervous that he wouldn't meet the requirements to serve, so while at the U.S. Army Induction Center in Altoona, he drank as much water as he could from a fountain to put on some weight. He made it by two pounds.
"I was 98 pounds soaking wet; that's how the joke goes, anyway," laughed the 88-year-old Wentz - who now lives in Martinsburg with his wife, Thelma. "I really was skin and bones. I ate like a wood chipper and weighed as much as a mosquito, but I wanted to go - and I was ready to go.
"I was really caught up in the need; it had to be done. Everything was geared to the war effort - gardening, Lucky Strike [cigarette] packs, so many things like that. The whole country was hyped up about the war. ... All my friends were gone, and I needed to go, so I went."
Wentz's journey from his parents' small farm to his training in Mississippi, action in North Africa, and his wounding during combat in Italy with the 36th Division has been documented in a book "A Scout for E Company: 1944, The Story of PFC Gene Wentz" by Wentz's son-in-law, Daniel Felix.
"I'm a history person; I love history," said Felix, an adjunct professor of education at Messiah College and Elizabethtown College. He also taught at Chestnut Ridge High School for five years before serving as a principal in Ephrata and working for the state Department of Education in Harrisburg. "I read an article about World War II veterans dying and taking their stories with them, and that bothered me.
"I knew Gene so well, but he never talked about it. I knew he had been in the war and wounded, but that was it."
With the typical humility of many in his generation, Wentz was not initially willing to have a book written about himself.
"My original thoughts were negative," he said. "[Felix] asked me, and I said I would rather not. I told him to wait until after I died, because it was too much like tooting my horn. But between him, and my wife and my daughter, I finally relented and said, 'go ahead.'"
Felix "pleaded and begged" Wentz to let him document his story.
"It started out as something we could just write for the family," Felix said. "It then evolved into this book."
During his time in North Africa and Italy, Wentz served as a scout, a position that "seemed to be right up my alley," he said.
"I was trained for scouting, even from basic training. I think I was a good scout," Wentz said, with a laugh. "You go see what you can see; you're out probing around, and you go find where they are.
"That's how I got machine-gunned. I was a quarter of a mile out in front of my unit."
While on a scouting mission around the Italian town of Velletri in May 1944, Wentz tried to cross a fava bean field. The cracking of the dead beanstalks alerted German troops to his presence, and Wentz was badly wounded in the leg and abdomen, receiving the Purple Heart for his injuries. The wounds ended his military service and began a long, rough road to recovery, which Felix also details.
"He really hit a lot of the high points in the book," Wentz said.
Felix feels "it's a shame" that the stories of many soldiers like Wentz are lost to history, and Wentz thinks that "it's good for the younger generation to be up on the past.
"I think about how interesting it is to know about things that happened in the wars, all of the wars our country has been involved in," Wentz said. "It's good to know what happened in the past."
The book is available by either visiting the book's website at scoutforecompany1944.com or by sending $20 (which includes the price of the book, sales tax and shipping and handling) to Scout for E Company: 1944, P.O. Box 502, Boiling Springs, PA 17007. Please make checks or money orders payable to Dr. Daniel Felix, and include your return mailing address for shipping, as well as your phone number.
Mirror staff writer Cory Dobrowolsky can be reached at 946-7428.