Author’s Work Features Grandfather’s World War II Memoirs

Nov 14, 2018
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

As a youngster, Gina Maguire would often sit with her grandfather Nicholas Venturella as he told stories of his days in the Army in World War II. Decades later, Maguire turned his memoirs into a book, It Was Fate: A War, a Massacre, a Romance.

In honor of Veterans Day, Maguire discussed and signed copies of her book last week at the Long Beach Island branch of the Ocean County Library in Surf City. Maguire said Venturella had entrusted his photos, letters, and a narrative of his life to the author, who compiled them to give a personal and historical perspective of his experiences.

“I had a close relationship with my grandparents,” she said. “My parents were very young, and both sets of grandparents were only in their 40s when I was born.”

A Barnegat Township resident, Maguire said her grandfather, who was born in Brooklyn in 1925, saw combat duty in Europe while serving with the 102nd Infantry Division, also known as the Ozark Division. But it almost never happened. She said the Brooklyn-born Venturella was 18 when he tried to enlist. However, the Army apparently didn’t think he was physically fit enough, and he was rejected.

“He was classified as a 4-F and was very disappointed since a lot of young men from the neighborhood wanted to serve when they became of age,” Maguire recalled.

She said Venturella tried to enlist again in 1944.

“He tore off the 4-F that stuck out in the corner of his envelope, and this time he got in,” said Maguire. “His mother was not too happy.”

He underwent training at Fort Dix and Fort Belvoir in Virginia before getting called to the European Theater of Operation with the Ozarks. They landed in Cherbourg, France, in September 1944.

Maguire said the realities of war hit him very quickly, as the beach in Cherbourg was part of the Normandy Invasion.

“He saw what looked like dark clay,” said Maguire. “Then he realized it was blood-soaked sand.” 

The “massacre” in the book title referred to what became known as the Gardelegen Atrocity, which took place in April 1945. German troops had forced 1,016 slave laborers who were part of a transport evacuated from two concentration camps into a large barn in Gardelegen. The structure was set on fire.  Most of the prisoners were burned alive; some were shot trying to escape. Venturella’s outfit was one of several Army divisions that discovered the atrocity when the U.S. Army occupied the area.

Venturella said he was part of a unit assigned to find the ones responsible for the massacre.

“The perpetrators were from an SS officers school,” he wrote. “We got the SS officers who did it and put them in the city jail. I was on the crew that kept them in jail. Some of the other guys went into the town and got every man they could find. They got the men to separate and line up the bodies. Then all the people in the town were marched through the barn and the lines of dead bodies.”

The “romance” in the book title involves Herta Rose Heitel, the young German woman who would become his wife. Maguire said that starting such a relationship while still an active serviceman had its complications.

“The Army did not like the idea of bringing a wife home from an enemy country,” she said. “He had to get letters of approval signed by numerous commanding officers as well as references about the woman’s family, church and health.”

Maguire said Venturella was employed by Stars and Stripes, the Army periodical. It gave him a press pass, something he took advantage of.

“It gave him the ability to get in to see any officer,” she said. “He personally visited every officer, obtained their signatures, and the wedding was on.”

Maguire said Herta’s father, Hans, was a staunch anti-Nazi, which resulted in his being placed in a “re-education camp.”

The couple were married on Dec. 1, 1947, by a Lutheran pastor who had been a German POW held by the United States.

“The church was full of people because she was the first girl in town to marry an American soldier,” Maguire said. “It was a big deal. Everyone came.”

In 1948, Venturella was honorably discharged. The couple moved back to Brooklyn, where he worked as a printer. Herta died in July 2006.

Maguire said she had no idea she had a treasure trove of memoirs until after her grandfather died in December 2008.

“We were cleaning out his (home) when we came across this huge box, and it was filled with letters he had written and sent and letters he received,” she said.

But it was two years ago when she decided to write the book, inspired to action through the Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at Stockton University. Maguire is associated with the university as an adjunct professsor of gerontology and is also on the staff of the Stockton Center on Successful Aging. Maryann McLoughlin, an English instructor associated with the resource center, said Holocaust survivors had talked about how important it was for second and third generations to remember and to write their family stories.

“When I heard that, I realized I had to write this book,” Maguire said. “And at the center, I could offer the perspective of what it was like to help liberate a prison.

“The biggest challenge was going through all these letters he had written while overseas. It took a long time, but through much of that I was able to piece his story together.”

Once that was done, then came the painstaking process of writing and editing.

“The editing part was a group effort,” she said. “People on the staff at Stockton and members of my family all helped. Texts were edited, then re-edited and edited some more. I thank everyone for helping me with this effort.”

The author said she is preparing for an another project concerning the Vietnam War.

“My father and uncles served there,” she said. “I would like to write about their experiences.”   

Maguire said anyone interested in ordering her book can email her at itwasfatebook@gmail.com.

— Eric Englund

ericenglund@thesandpaper.net

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