Second to None!
The 2nd Chemical Battalion and Pope Benedict XVI

Liberating the Pope

On the afternoon of 3 May 1945 Major James Quimby was driving through Bavaria looking for a place to spend the night. As Executive Officer of the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion, attached to the 45th Infantry Division, one of his jobs was to reconnoiter with his HQ detachment select a location for the battalion Command Post.  At the rate the Allies were advancing, this meant a new location every day for several weeks.

The Germans had lost the ability to fight as an army. Entire units were without orders or supply. Many surrendered at first contact with the Americans. Correspondents described the action as “pursuit” but the men in the lines were cautious. The Germans had been “near defeat” many times before, but if one of them shot you it didn't matter if his unit was disorganized. The 4.2-inch mortars of Quimby’s battalion found plenty of work providing smoke to screen river crossings or raining high explosive on roadblocks, machine guns and anti-tank emplacements.

Quimby passed up several possible CP locations and decided to take a look at the little town of Traunstein. Even a village offered more resources and comforts than barns and cow pastures. The convoy, a mixed bag of a couple of dozen jeeps, ton weapons carriers and deuce-and-a-half-trucks, had reached the main street before Quimby realized that every uniform in sight was German field gray. Traunstein was still held by the Germans!

Hundreds of German soldiers glanced at the little American detachment and went on about their business. Quimby decided to bluff, and looked for the biggest building with the biggest Nazi flag in front that he could find. He told his driver to head for the main entrance. “I decided I was going to walk up like I owned the place, and announce that as the lead element of XX Corps I was here to accept the surrender of whoever was in charge. Climbing a nearby hill, his jeep passed through neatly trimmed grounds to a large, multi-story building with imposing columns along its front. Some Germans sat relaxed on the porch or walked in conversation on the grounds. Far too many stood with their arms, obviously on guard duty.

Major James O. Quimby
Major James O. Quimby   

PFC Paul Irvin, Quimby’s radio operator, recalled the suspense. “I hadn’t seen so many Germans at one time in the whole war. They could have shot us down or taken us prisoner right there. Or they could have let the boss get inside and taken him while they did whatever they felt like with the rest of us.” In fact, Quimby had not even reached front door when a German officer met him on the steps. “He said he was delighted to see us and would like to surrender, and the German Army hadn't sent any medical supplies in two weeks and could I get him some.” It turned out that Traunstein was a hospital center. “Every building of any size was in use as a hospital. That little town couldn't have been more than a few thousand people, but there were ten or eleven hospitals in it.”

During this discussion, the men in the vehicles discovered in their own ways that there was not going to be a fight. One German noticed an American sergeant eying the Luger at his belt, so he walked over and gave it to him. Private John Skaggs was given a helmet by a German whose name, burned into the leather liner, was OBfg. (Coporal) Kunz.

Quimby suddenly found himself in the dual role of civil administrator and prison camp commandant. He assigned Captain Ralph Barnes, the battalion surgeon, to see about medical supplies.  "I located the town chief of police, whose name was Ratzinger, and set up my CP in his house. We designated places for all the Germans to turn in their weapons and his policemen worked with us to conduct a house-to house search to make sure nobody was holding out on us. We shoved hundreds of Germans onto empty trucks. We were supposed to identify them and get their numbers and make a list, but by this time it was dark and we didn't even count them, we just wanted them out of there.”

Later Quimby got word that Seventh Army had credited 2nd Chemical with capturing the town. “I’m sure it was the only instance in the whole war in which a chemical mortar battalion, by itself, captured a town. And without firing a shot!"

Several men in Quimby's detachment recalled the police chief's 18-year-old son Joseph. He was a quiet kid, and it turned out that he had just returned home after deserting from the German Army. The Americans told him that with the war nearly over he should make sure his record was clean, and they told him to go put his uniform on so they could process him as a POW. Sergeant John Smith recalled that “When we took him outside, all the neighbors laughed and pointed. For some reason it seemed like it was a big joke to see this kid in uniform.”

The young man, son of Police Chief Ratzinger was named Joseph. He is better known to you as Pope Benedict XVI. This connection was first identified by Dr. Phil O'Connor, who was researching the life of Pope Benedict XVI shortly after his election. Dr. O'Connor has many connections in the Church, and authored a guidebook to places in Rome that have significance in World War II.

The day after Traunstein was captured C Company of the 2nd Chemical Mortar Bttalion was detailed to move 25,000 POWs to a collection point near Bad Aibling. PFC Elliot Stalnaker recalled, “They gave me a rifle and told me there were about 200 POWs for every one of us and to shoot anybody that gave me any trouble. We lined 'em up in the biggest column you ever saw and marched 'em right down the Autobahn.”

In his memoirs, Pope Benedict referred to this long dusty column as “a river of humanity.” Sixty three years later, an interviewer told Stalnaker “I’m glad you didn‘t shoot the Pope!” Stalnaker shrugged. “I’m glad he didn’t misbehave.” And so it was that the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion first liberated the future Pope, and then captured him.

CPL Eliott Stalnaker
CPL Eliott Stalnaker    

Sergeant John Edvalson, who carried a BAR to provide security for the mortar positions, was also among the guards. “It was hot and they gradually strung out for miles. We stopped for the first night at a little cluster of farm houses. We had some rations for them but what they really wanted was water.” Of the thousands of Germans who lined up at the few water faucets, Edvalson remembered one very clearly. He had no legs. “He was carrying a bucket in his teeth, because he needed his hands to move.” After an endless wait the German reached the spigot and filled his bucket. As he pulled himself painfully away, clenching the heavy pail in his teeth, an American sergeant from another unit seized it and emptied it on the ground. Edvalson was overwhelmed with fury at this intentional cruelty. He found himself shaking as he barely restrained himself. “I wanted to deck that guy so bad! I never came so close to losing my stripes.”

At Bad Aibling, the prisoners were herded onto a former Luftwaffe air field, where they waited for three days with too little food and no shelter while the Americans gathered the resources to take care of them. Sergeant John Durkovitz recalled, “There were still German fighter planes around the field. Some of guys who had been in flight school for a while managed to get them running and gave people rides. They would taxi up and down the field with ten or twelve guys sitting on each wing. 

SGT John Edvalson
SGT John Edvalson    

Somewhere in the confusion, Joseph Ratzinger was processed as a POW, sent to a camp near Ulm, and released to go home in June. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1951.

In 2006 Dr. O'Connor arranged for Cardinal George of Chicago to deliver to the Pope a copy of Finding My Father's War the history of the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion in World War II., signed by veterans of the battalion. The Secretary of State of the Vatican, Cardinal Bertone, responded with a warm letter acknowledging the Holy Fathers memory of the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion troops, and stating that he was touched by their remembrance and gift after so many years.

Letter from Vatican

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