Stan and Ardis Kerns with a display of the World War II memorabilia from the collection of Stan’s father,
Sgt. LeRoy Kerns of the U.S. Army’s 36th Infantry Division. (Terry Frei photos)
Ardis Kerns of Greeley decided it was time to share
her father-in-law’s story. And his effects.
She and her husband, Stan Kerns, stood by a table in their living room recently, narrating a guided
tour of former 36th Infantry Division Sgt. LeRoy Kerns’ World War II-related possessions and memorabilia collection.
After the war, LeRoy Kerns
graduated from and obtained a master’s degree from what now is the University of Northern Colorado. Next, he earned
a doctorate from the University of Colorado and had a long teaching career at UNC. Ultimately, he was the director of the
UNC Laboratory School and retired in 1974.
Sgt. LeRoy Kerns. (Courtesy
Kerns’ wartime military service was no secret. He spoke with the Tribune’s Mike Peters for a 1990 column,
and mentioned how he earned his Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart and accepted a white flag of surrender from a German contingent
led by a war-weary major who sought out the Americans in the final days of the war in Europe. The same facts were in his Greeley
there were no marathon discussions with his family about that or the rest.
“It would be years between any mention of World War II, and then not
much,” said Stan, 76, a photographer who owns Contemporary Studios in
Ardis is an
operating room nurse at the UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland
and a nurse practitioner at the Greeley Wellness Center.
Stan’s mother, Elizabeth, died in 2002 and
LeRoy died the next year. Ardis and Stan inherited LeRoy’s collection.
“When they passed, I had to take their stuff and I moved it to my
basement,” Ardis said the other day. “I opened a box, and it had the German (soldier’s) hat in it. It took
my breath away. These belonged to someone that didn’t make it.”
LeRoy Kerns’ Purple
Heart and Bronze Star Medal are part of his collection.
The collection was prized, but remained in boxes. “I knew I had it, so it was
just recently that I went through it again,” Ardis said.
Stan had been aware of all this as far back as childhood.
“In my folks’ house, the spare bedroom
had a cedar chest, and in it were Dad’s medals,” he said. “As an 8- or 9-year-old I’d occasionally
go in and look at them. I doubt that I looked at them after I was 8 or 9.”
This Christmas, Ardis decided it was time to start sharing copies of Stan’s
own 6,000-word, typewritten narrative of his combat-filled European combat service with family and friends. And to also
speak of and share looks at his collection of both personal and other World War II artifacts.
Stan Kerns with the Mauser
rifle from his father’s collection.
This is only a partial list, but the collection includes Kerns’ Bronze Star and Purple
Heart, plus an Expert marksmanship badge with qualification bars and his dog tags; a Mauser rifle and bayonet; a German sword;
the swastika-marked helmet and hat; a Luger pistol; and a beer mug from Landsberg Prison, where Adolf Hitler was imprisoned
after the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. and wrote the infamous “Mein Kampf,” published in 1925 and ’26.
Ardis and Stan also have a notebook holding a copy
of Kerns’ 16-page, tightly spaced typewritten narrative, with eight pages of his handwritten notes appended. Plus,
they have a treasure trove of envelopes with perhaps more than a hundred small photographs of LeRoy’s time in the service,
postcards, currencies and other memorabilia obtained on the move across Europe.
There is more. It’s unclear if he acquired any of it in post-war years
as a hobbyist looking back on his service. U.S. troops commonly collected enemy artifacts along the way … when possible.
Many later also sought to collect wartime memorabilia connected to their own fighting.
“To my knowledge, he did not collect any of it later,”
Sgt. LeRoy Kerns in Europe.
This is clear: LeRoy Kerns
fought against the horror that was Nazi Germany, facing German troops wearing and carrying the sort of items that ended up
in his collection. And the native Coloradan earned the Purple Heart and Bronze Star doing so.
LeRoy Kerns was born in Hudson, and his family lost their
farm in the Great Depression. He graduated from Kersey High School and worked for Gates Rubber in Denver, Montgomery
Ward in Greeley and Billings, and then Firestone Garage before he was drafted.
In mid-1944, about a month after D-Day, when he was about to turn 30, he
disembarked in Liverpool, moved to London, Southhampton and then LeHavre. After a trip in troop transport trucks to an area
near Lyon, Kerns was assigned to Company C of the 1st Battalion of the 143rd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division,
part of the 7th Army. (Leading to the question: How’d we keep everything straight?) The 143rd Infantry Regiment had
come up from fighting in Italy.
German troops were retreating. The 3rd Army took Lyon with little opposition. Kerns wrote that the 36th Infantry
Division crossed the Moselle River, using a pontoon bridge constructed by U.S. engineers. They came to a small village and
encountered German troops.
“The worst part, as I remember, was having to advance under machine gun fire, part of the time actually crawling,”
LeRoy Kerns’ World
War II Victory Medal.
After they took the village, tanks arrived to secure U.S. control. But German tanks soon arrived, too, and Kerns hit
one of them with accurate bazooka rounds.
“The explosions against the tanks located it for one of our (tanks) , and they opened fire on the
(German) tank almost immediately,” Kerns wrote. “The enemy tank was soon out of operation. If our (tank) had not
opened fire as soon as they did, I feel I would have come under machine gun fire and wouldn’t be here to tell about
it. For this action, I received the Bronze Star citation.”
In the Vosges Mountains, Kerns’ troops in early December 1944 were ordered to
take a hill, in wide-open and difficult-to-navigate territory because the Germans had cut down the trees and left them in
the way. Kerns wrote that, under fire, his unit suffered major losses, but took the hill, which was important because of the
trenches and pill-box gun emplacements.
A German Luger pistol
from LeRoy Kerns’ collection.
From there, Kerns’ unit headed for Strasbourg, on the Rhine River and the gateway to Germany.
He wrote that in the city of Bitche, “I was hit by shrapnel from a mortar shell which had hit a roof just above me when
it exploded. I still carry bits of shrapnel in my head but it doesn’t seem to bother me.”
He wrote that he went to a medical unit for treatment
and received the Purple Heart.
Between more fighting in the Strasbourg area, Kerns’ unit spent Christmas in the city, and Kerns wrote that he
was asked to lead the Christmas carols and that he was given a sketch a fellow soldier made of the Strasbourg Cathedral. That
sketch, now framed, is among the family’s collection of his memorabilia and pictured above.
A German soldier’s
hat from LeRoy Kerns’ collection.
Things were quieting down, and Kerns was granted leave to Paris, and he visited the most notable
sites as a tourist. Then on March 21, 1945, his unit crossed the Rhine River, near the German city of Mainz. The race to Berlin
were becoming younger and younger, and many surrendered.
Kerns wrote about starting to come across concentration camps and described encountering what apparently
was a Dachau sub-camp.
A sword and its case,
from LeRoy Kerns’ memorabilia.
“This particular one was mostly Polish people, men and women,” he wrote. “The
prison was dirty and prisoners were bedded on straw of other fibers, and the people were literally covered with fleas. They
were a miserable group. We asked them to unclothe and we sprayed them with DDT. The rooms were cleaned, the straw was burned,
new supplies were furnished, the rooms were sprayed and the prisoners were in a state of celebration.”
He described additional horrors.
“Also, we came across the burial sites where
(the Germans) had simply dug deep holes — some 20 or more feet across and about as deep — where they had thrown
the bodies of the burned and murdered prisoners. In their hurry, some had not even been covered while some were mounded up
a bit with dirt. As I remember, we found 18 of these mounded pits about 20 miles north of Augsberg.”
A German helmet is among
LeRoy Kerns’ collection.
Then they came across the prison and camp at Landsberg, where Hitler and other Nazis had been incarcerated
in the mid-1920s. He wrote that copies of “Mein Kampf” still were there and that he was “able to secure
a copy of the book and a beer mug, which I carefully packaged and sent home.”
On May 5, Kerns and others heard a vehicle approaching, took
cover and was astounded to see it was a German Jeep-like vehicle with a white flag on a pole. He said the driver took the
flag and a major got out and joined him, and both began walking over debris toward Kerns.
“When they reached the top of the pile of rocks,
I called out halting them,” he wrote. “The German major called back to me, and in quite good English said, ‘We
are unarmed and have come to stop this bloodshed.’ I then asked them to remove their helmets and advance, which they
did. The major then said, ‘Take us to your commanding officer, where we can make arrangements for the surrender procedure.’
My heart almost burst, but I moved down the road with them to the command post. Heads were popping up everywhere.”
Kerns wrote that they placed
the Germans in a Jeep and that he was with them as far as the division headquarters. He said that German tanks, with their
guns down, soon were allowed to move uncontested to a designated area of surrender and park. There, German soldiers stacked
their weapons and set up camp. The movement of the tanks and troops, Kerns wrote, took about eight hours.
Scattered German surrenders of that sort were taking
place all over. The official surrender of all German forces came three days later.
LeRoy Kerns’ Expert Marksmanship badge
with qualification bars.
In 1981, Kerns wrote to producers of “The New You Asked for It” television show — a revival of a ’50s
mainstay — telling his story of the white flag and surrender and asking the show to re-create it on the spot it took
for It” apparently said, “No, thanks.”
But that story lives on in his memoir … and his memorabilia.