George R. Yohn, a World War II veteran who still lives in his hometown of Millerstown, Pennsylvania, never finished high school. He was still in high school when he was drafted.
“I didn’t finish school because I was a little older, and they took me at 18,” Yohn, 96, told Coffee or Die Magazine. He was older because his teacher set him back a year in sixth grade — though Yohn jokes that his extra year was not for grades but to be with his future wife, Evelyn, who went by Jean. When Jean moved from a country school to Yohn’s school in Millerstown, she was a grade below him, he says, and he got distracted.
“I took an eye to her,” Yohn said, “And that’s what she felt like, too. She looked pretty good to me.”
Yohn was drafted in November 1943. He would spend the war as a technician fifth grade (a rank structure dropped by the Army but reflected today in the Air Force’s technical sergeant rank) in the 18th Tank Battalion, 8th Armored Division, as a crewman on a Sherman tank. Unlike for many draftees, the military wasn’t a complete unknown to Yohn: Yohn’s father, George G. Yohn, had served in World War I.
George Yohn and Jean got married in early 1944, and Jean quickly became pregnant before Yohn reported for training in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “We went through 6 weeks of training in Fort Knox, Kentucky, then went down to Camp Polk, Louisiana. We were there for about a week,” Yohn said. His unit shipped out to Southampton, England, from New Jersey.
He remembered spending Thanksgiving of 1944 in England. “We got our tanks ready,” Yohn said. “They had them shipped over there, and they put us on barges and took us across the channel into France.”
From there, the 18th pushed more than 350 miles into Sinz and Nennig in Germany. “That was a bad, bad day for an 18, 19-year-old boy,” Yohn said. “We were under heavy artillery, really heavy artillery.” They would battle for several weeks, then rest for a week or two. “That’s when we were really in heavy battle there, the whole way through.”
Yohn remembers his commander volunteering the battalion to rescue another tank from a ditch. “There was pretty heavy fire up there,” he said. His crewmates got out of the tank and attached a cable to the stuck vehicle. Yohn stayed in the tank, ready to drive. “They hooked the cable up to him, but fire started to come from over, out in the fields, so we had to knock them out, then we got him out,” Yohn said. Another time, his tank hit a mine while avoiding a roadblock. “My commander said, ‘Take a big swing and go around a little farther out into the field.’ That’s when I hit the mine.” The tank quickly caught fire. “We had just fueled up, and gas splashed out,” Yohn said. “Oh, the fire, it was really hot.”
The memory, he says, is painful, but he can recall most of the crew distinctly. “The only one I don’t remember is either the gunner or the loader. He was running around trying to jump off the tank to get out of there. I don’t know if he made it or not,” Yohn said. “Some of it, you don’t want to hear. I don’t like to think of it either. I forgot it. I like to forget it.”
The crew crawled back across the field toward the other tanks. “I grabbed my little bag I had some personal stuff in, and I got around the back of the tank,” Yohn said. “We crawled back to our gang, to the best news we ever heard: ‘We’re done. The war is over.’ No sooner than I got up to the gang, the rest of the four tanks, and they said the war was over.”
After that, the 8th Armored Division spent the next few months on occupation duty in Czechoslovakia. “I got home on the 20th of November, 1945,” Yohn said. He finally laid eyes on Jean again for the first time since he’d shipped off in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania — though she wasn’t alone. “I had a son, George Jr., then,” Yohn said.
Jean Yohn died in 2008. She and George Yohn spent 64 happy years of marriage together. They had four boys: George Jr., Ronnie, Darwin, and Tony.
George Jr. went on to serve in the Army in the Vietnam War — the third straight George Yohn to go to war for his country. For a local celebration some years ago, Yohn fondly remembered all three Georges in uniform. “Here comes my dad walking out of the house with his World War I uniform on,” he said.
They captured the moment in a photograph.
Yohn will head to a commemorative event on Memorial Day at the Millerstown Community Park. “It’s right below [my house]. I could throw a stone three times; I would hit it,” he said. “I’m not putting that heavy suit on. I only have the winter suit.”
But he’ll still be there.