CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Dix R. Fetzer was born in Milton, Pennsylvania in May, 1924. In December, 1941, he was working for the Westinghouse Corporation as a shipping clerk. He and two friends were driving to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania in a 1934 Ford Convertible when they learned of the Pearl Harbor attack over the radio. They immediately headed for home, and Fetzer went to a recruiting station to enlist the next day. The recruiter told him to come back when he was eighteen, which he did. Fetzer’s father had served in World War I, and a brother later served in the European Theater as a master sergeant during WWII. Fetzer enlisted with another brother, who died of stomach cancer in October 1942.
Following basic training, Fetzer received extensive instruction as a demolition expert at various locations, including Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, Raritan Arsenal, Metuchen, New Jersey, Aberdeen Arsenal, Aberdeen, Maryland, the Presidio of San Francisco and finally Fort Lewis, Washington. He was trained in all aspects of explosives disposal, including dismantling bombs dropped by planes, as well as mines and shells that were fired from ships and field artillery pieces and failed to initially explode.
Fetzer was assigned to the 32nd Infantry Regiment, part of a force designated to liberate the Japanese occupied Alaskan islands of Attu and Kiska of the Aleutian chain, which had been captured by the enemy in June, 1942 and used to launch air attacks on other Alaskan islands. Unaware of their ultimate destination, the men of the 32nd sailed north, packed aboard a troop transport ship protected by two destroyer escorts. The Americans experienced rough seas and bad weather, and many of Fetzer’s fellow soldiers became desperately seasick. It would get worse, as winds up to 150 miles per hour were common in the Aleutian Islands, and the clothing the soldiers had been issued before departure was inadequate for such an environment.
As the troopship neared its destination, it passed within fifteen feet of a floating mine, which one of the men in Fetzer’s unit successfully disarmed. In May 1943 the 32nd made a midnight landing on Attu. They were followed quickly by other American troops who expanded the beachhead. In the ensuing nineteen day battle, 550 Americans and 2,600 Japanese died. Many of the Japanese deaths were suicides, as they would often detonate a grenade to kill themselves rather than surrender. Fetzer recalled that while walking the Attu beach, a stray dog he had acquired alerted him to an enemy soldier who attempted to attack him, and he was able to shoot the Japanese and save his life. He also witnessed American soldiers removing the gold teeth of dead Japanese soldiers.
As the Americans cleared the Japanese from Attu, many of the bombs they dropped on the enemy failed to detonate, creating dangerous work for Fetzer and his comrades. Despite extensive training and all due precautions, a number of accidents occurred, including one in which Fetzer’s first sergeant lost his arm. On another occasion a Japanese booby trap detonated and cost some men their hearing. The bomb disposal men worked in teams of six, rotating the most dangerous duties. As one man disarmed a bomb or shell, the remaining five remained under cover to the rear. Sometimes Fetzer was able to deal with unexploded ordnance at a distance, since he had received sniper training at Ft. Lewis, and was able, if a bomb were positioned right, to shoot at and detonate it from up to 100 yards away.
Fetzer recalled that there was a mountain just beyond the beach and that Japanese snipers entrenched on its slope shot many U.S. soldiers. As he and his team worked their way up the mountain, they paused to dig protective foxholes, which were so close to enemy lines that the Japanese could pitch hand grenades into them, which the Americans would try to toss back. One of these grenades exploded next to Fetzer, and he was severely wounded in the knee as well as suffered partial hearing loss. When medics arrived to carry him off the field twenty minutes later, he realized that he was the only survivor of his team. It was May 25, 1943, one day after his nineteenth birthday.
Fetzer was brought to the 174th Field Hospital, where he received good care. His knee became infected, but a doctor was able to solve the problem surgically. He praised the kind and considerate nurses who attended him at the hospital. Before he was evacuated to a medical facility further to the rear, he gave the dog that saved his life to a 23 yr. old nurse who had attended him. Most of Fetzer’s hearing eventually returned, but he has worn a Veterans Administration provided hearing aid since 1945, as well as a knee support brace. While undergoing treatment in a rear area hospital, he met and married a Perth Amboy, New Jersey girl and moved to New Jersey after the war.
Although the Alaska front was a largely forgotten theater of war, the USO provided entertainment for the troops, who were even visited by big time celebrities like Bob Hope and Jerry Colonna. Live explosives remained a problem on the seldom visited Aleutian Islands to the end of the twentieth century, and Fetzer returned there many years later to help US Navy personnel find old bombs and mines. It was not until 2000 that the Navy certified that the islands were free from unexploded ordnance. Attu is currently a national wildlife refuge, and there are fish canneries elsewhere in the Aleutians. Fetzer noted that a memorial to the men killed in battle has been erected on Attu. The fight for the island proved an enduring experience for Dix Fetzer, and he revealed that he had experienced nightmares about it for a half century after his discharge. Fetzer left the army as a sergeant on November 2, 1945. He was awarded campaign ribbons, the Purple Heart and the “Master Blaster” medal.
Dix R. Fetzer passed away on March 30, 2016.