Red Cross through the generations: the story of James Waller, WWII 71st Infantry Division

Photo - James on Left

James Waller (left) with his Company Clerk.

It’s difficult to overstate the reach of Red Cross’ impact over the past 130 years. Whether we’re aware of it or not, most of our lives have been touched, directly or indirectly, by the humanitarian work of Red Cross volunteers and staff.

Take Deb McDermott, a board member of American Red Cross’ Greater Grand Rapids Chapter, for example. Deb recalls that her father, a veteran of World War II, was never keen to relive his days of service, but the one piece he would recount, over and over, was: “you could ALWAYS count on the Red Cross.”

Deb’s father, James Waller, belonged to the 271st Engineer Combat Battalion of the US’ 71st Infantry Division. The 71st fought campaigns in Europe from February 6th 1945 through March 10th 1946. James Waller’s division saw 62 days of combat and captured more than six cities during their tour. But it’s what James and his fellow servicemen saw after that combat which likely changed them the most.

The 71st liberated several concentration camps, including an Austrian camp named Gunskirchen Lager.

Tattered and worn from combat, the 71st were greeted at Gunskirchen Lager with a bittersweet mix of elation and despair. The horrors the inhabitants of the camp had experienced were beyond words.

Deb recalls her father “spoke very little about the war, always stating that the heroes were the ones who didn’t come home.”Image

What James and the rest of his division saw there is chronicled in a pamphlet named “The Seventy-First came to Gunskirchen Lager”, which you can read online here.

In the midst of death, combat, unthinkable conditions and the stark reality of the concentration camps, the Red Cross’ presence stood out to James as a beacon of hope – the one positive memory he could bring home and relive with his family decades later.

James Waller passed away in 2011.

Take a moment this holiday season to discover how the Red Cross may have touched generations of your own family, friends or neighbors. You might be surprised by what you find.


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