“The Army promised that no 18-year-olds would be sent overseas into combat,” he recalled. “Three months later our division sailed for Europe and the theater of war.”
Rapp was assigned out of basic training to the combat medics. His Company D, 122nd Medical Battalion, was part of the 42nd Infantry Division — better known as the 42nd Rainbow Division. Rapp and his battalion would come ashore in southern France, at Marseille, in late 1944.
In the Autumn of 1944, the three infantry regiments of the 42nd were rushed overseas ahead of the remainder of the division. Task Force Linden, as it was designated, was, as one infantryman put it, “flung into the maw.” They bolstered other thinned-down divisions trying to prevent a breakout of two German armies in Alsace, in eastern France.
The Rainbow Division, first attached to the 7th Army and later transferred to Patton’s 3rd Army, attacked through strong German defensive positions in the Hardt Mountains of France, penetrated the Siegfried Line at the German frontier, crossed the Rhine and advanced into the cradle of Nazism.
The Rainbow fighters would capture Wurzburg, Schweinfurt, Furth (twin city of Nuremberg), Donauworth, and liberate the Dachau concentration camp. It would be in Munich a week before Germany surrendered and the war in Europe ended on May 8.
As an Army medic, Rapp was assigned to the 122nd Medical Battalion’s Clearing Station, which operated behind the front line, moving its operations — staffed by medics, nurses, medical doctors and surgeons — as necessary. During the Korean War such medical stations would be known as M.A.S.H. (Medical Army Surgical Hospital) units.
The 42nd Rainbow Division was a unique unit in that it was a reconstitution of the Rainbow Division that served in World War I. It was first formed in August 1917 with National Guard members from 26 states. For World War II, Army Ground Forces filled the division’s new units with personnel from every state in the union.
It got its name from a remark made by then-Col. Douglas MacArthur, who would later become the division’s commander. He said the 42nd Division “stretches like a rainbow from one end of America to the other.”
While crossing the Atlantic Ocean for Gibraltar at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, one of the troop ships in Rapp’s convoy, escorted by Navy ships, was sunk by a German submarine.
“We were thrown into combat Christmas Eve 1944, in the Battle of the Bulge,” Rapp said. “The majority of our infantry men were either killed or wounded. We did what we could for them.”
The casualties were more than the battalion could handle.
“We just had to lay some litters on the ground and treat them there,” Rapp said. “The more severely wounded, of course, were patched up and sent on back to a field hospital. We never got much sleep during this period of time.”
He learned that two of his high school friends who had graduated a couple of years ahead of him, Bill Cooley and Russ Schwamberger, had died on a battlefield about 60 miles north of his division.
Rapp never carried a gun unless he was on guard duty. He had some close calls, some brushes with death.
“About six of us were moving closer to the front. The ambulance driver couldn’t make the curve and the ambulance turned over,” he said. “We were all unharmed, but German and American tanks were blazing away at each other right around us.
“We headed for an old barn to take cover, and in there we found several German pistols and rifles that had been booby-trapped (for souvenir hunters). We didn’t fall for it. We went outside, dug in, and slept the night — got some sleep, at least.”
At the clearing station, he was in charge of a 75-bed ward, working 12 hours on and 12 hours off.
“We were treating a patient for battle fatigue, and his chart read that he was to be given Sodium Amatol, a sleeping tablet, every four to five hours. My buddy working with me, a Cajun from Louisiana, unbeknownst to me, was waking him up every four to five hours and giving him another of the capsules. The patient, whose father, we were to find out, was a big shot with the Northern Pacific Railroad, slept about five straight days!”
One night he was standing guard duty, on the midnight to 4 a.m. shift, when German planes began strafing the hospital compound.
“I ran and jumped into a foxhole. I felt something soft under my feet. It was the body of a German soldier, face up,” he said. “I got out of there fast and ran into an open field and laid down flat on the ground. The planes made a few more passes and then left.
“I walked out of the field and back to my guard station. Next morning, I looked out over the field, and guess what was staring me square in the face? A sign that read, “Beware Land Mines.” I had run, in the dark, right through a mined area. I am sure God was watching over me.”
Another time, up near the end of the war, the Germans were shelling them with the big 88 mm artillery guns. One of Rapp’s friends, standing only 10 to 15 feet from him, was late taking cover. He watched in horror as a piece of shrapnel from an exploding projectile ripped half of the soldier’s head off.
“It’s an ugly, ugly thing, war is,” Rapp said.
The high number of casualties among the American infantrymen led to a number of battlefield commissions as the ranks of officers killed in action had to be filled.
He recalled how proudly a private accepted a commission to second lieutenant, thinking perhaps of how proud his parents would be.
“He was about my age. The very next day he was badly wounded. He died in our clearing station.”
Rapp said the station had the occasional captured German casualty, and when they were caught up on American casualties, they would treat the Germans.
“Eventually, these German soldiers brought in would be 15- and 16-year-old boys and 60-year-old men. We knew the end of the war was near as Hitler was desperate to staff his army. I remember the young German soldiers, some of them crying, thinking the American soldiers were going to kill them. I was helping treat a German soldier who had several gunshot wounds. I gave him an IV. He came to. I gave him a cigarette, and he was smiling. Then I got busy for about half an hour treating our own wounded. When I came back to the German, he was dead. Such are the fortunes of war.”
On April 25, the 42nd captured Donauworth on the Danube, and on April 29 they, along with the 45th Infantry Division, liberated some 30,000 inmates at Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp.
“Even with all I had seen in the war, I had not realized how cruel man can be to his fellow men,” Rapp said. “It was ghastly. There were railroad flatbed cars stacked with bodies beyond belief. There were still many prisoners yet alive, but they were so emancipated, so weak from lack of food, that they could not raise their arms to wave at us. But I shall never forget the smiles on their faces as they looked at their American liberators.
“We treated them, gave them high energy foods, and many of them came out of it within a few days.”
In was in Munich that it struck him with renewed awareness how that he had been fighting against the people of the land his own people had come from.
“I was walking past what was left of a pastry shop when I saw the sign on the window: ‘Wenkle Rapp, proprietor.’ I thought about my cousin back home, Wendell Rapp.”
Ken Rapp did not have enough points for an early out and he spent nearly all of the rest of 1945 as part of the occupation forces.
In December, he was given an emergency furlough to go home to see his urgently ill mother. She was dying of cancer. The Army flew him home. Even so, by the time he reached Portsmouth and made his way to Mercy Hospital, his mother was unconscious and died three days later – the day after Christmas.
He got his discharge papers a few days after that.
Rapp used the provisions of the GI Bill to earn a bachelor’s degree from Wilmington College and Ohio University. He earned his master’s degree from Marshall University and went on to enjoy a 31-year career in teaching and administration, some of it at Washington Local.
He and his wife, the former Eileen Noel, have been married 63 years. They have two sons and a daughter, Chris, Steve and Lisa; eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Rapp was 19 when he finished his stint in the military. He went in as a private and came out as a corporal. It had been a tremendous year of change for him, and for thousands of other young Americans, many of whom did not make it back home.
“These are the ones we thank for the freedoms we enjoy today,” Rapp said.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.