OAKLANDTRIBUNE: August 6, 2015
Of all the honors 89-year-old John Tounger has received since the end of World War II, the one he received recently is perhaps the most significant.
The Consulate General of the Russian Federation in San Francisco awarded the Oakland veteran a commemorative medal for his contribution in ending the war 70 years ago as a member of the U.S. Army’s 69th Infantry Division.
The Army 69th Infantry Division linked up with the Russian Army along the Elbe River in Torgau, Germany, on April 25, 1945 — effectively splitting the Nazis in half. Tounger’s four machine-gunner Jeep patrol received orders to head for Torgau the next morning, April 26.
“My sergeant said ‘Come on, guys — get in your Jeeps. You’ve got to clear a road 20 miles behind the German lines,’ ” Tounger recalled.
Their mission was to make sure it was safe for Maj. Gen. Emil F. Reinhardt to meet up with Russian officers in Torgau.
“It was a terrible, dangerous mission — we didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said.
Tounger’s patrol did not come under enemy fire. Quite the opposite, as they were leaving Torgau, a little Jewish boy who spoke English and German told them there was a German camp a mile out of town and the soldiers there wanted to surrender.
“We threw the kid into the Jeep and drove right into the camp,” Tounger said. “We were dumb guys. These guys had machine guns and pistols.”
Tounger said the Germans wanted to surrender to the Americans because they were “scared to death of the Russians. We told them to pile up their guns — and we had machine guns, knives, mortars and grenades piled up seven feet high.”
The prisoners formed a column of four abreast and headed toward Eilenburg, Germany. Tounger said his patrol was driving alongside and the line of prisoners kept growing until they could no longer see the end of the column.
“Every German around — we estimated 3,000 of them — was coming out of the woodwork,” Tounger recalled.
That’s when he knew the war was basically over. In fact, Tounger quoted Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower as saying at the time that the meeting of forces “cut the war a week early.”
Tounger still has a 1992 Montclarion article written by reporter Carolyn Younger, in which he recalled the historic mission and looked forward to a reunion of surviving “Fighting 69th” Infantry members that same year.
He told The Montclarion that he joined the Army when he was 18 and trained at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, before being sent to Belgium in the final days of the Battle of the Bulge. Despite the many battles he fought, Tounger said he was never wounded — something he attributed to a “praying” mother.
“That’s what got me back home safely,” he added.
Tounger’s wife, Dena, said he had a few nightmares after they were married, but those went away pretty quickly as he became a father and businessman as vice president of Di Salvo Trucking in San Francisco.
John and Dena have lived in the Oakland hills since 1964.
Russian Consul General Sergei Petrov acknowledged Tounger’s World War II heroics on June 10 on the National Day of the Russian Federation. He awarded a medal to Tounger “for his contribution to the victory over Nazism.”
It was a touching moment for many in the audience, including Maj. Gen. Reinhardt’s nephew and former Assistant Secretary of the Army, retired Marine Col. William Peacock.
“I truly believe that my uncle, Maj. Gen. Emil F. Reinhardt, commanding the Fighting 69th Infantry Division, was looking down from his forward command post in the sky with enormous pride,” Peacock said.
Peacock summed it up best when he said the photos of Tounger on the Consulate wall “showed just what a motivated 19-year-old American kid can do. World War II had many turning points, but the fact that Russia celebrates the linkup, the splitting of Nazi Germany in half, with such dedication and fervor tells a story that some historians might not quite get, even now.”