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Interview With World War II German Officer Siegfried Knappe

Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Berlin was a stout place for a fight. It was large, modern and well-planned, which had allowed it to remain less damaged than other German cities, even though it had been heavily bombed. Still, by 1945, approximately 25 percent of Berlin had been destroyed by air raids, but its essential services had never been overwhelmed. Because of its sturdy construction, a great effort would be required to capture the capital city.

The same factors that made Berlin so bomb-resistant also helped it resist ground attack. Throughout the city, large apartment buildings stood on strong, deep cellars. Wide boulevards and avenues at regular intervals served as firebreaks and would also serve as killing zones against Soviet tanks and infantry. Natural obstacles within the city made it even more defensible. The Spree River cut from the northwest part of the city through its center to the southeast. Berlin's southern approaches were guarded by the Teltow Canal. The center of the city, the heart of the capital, lay in a 'V' surrounded by the Spree River and the Landwehr Canal.

Many of the city's defenders were fighting for survival in the hope that they could delay the Soviets long enough for the Western armies to occupy more of Germany and, hopefully, Berlin. That was a hope that would never be realized, however. Berlin was defended by the LVI Panzer Corps under General Karl Weidling. At the start of the Soviet offensive, the LVI Panzer Corps was still not fully manned and consisted of only two divisions, the recently formed Muncheberg Division and the 20th SS Panzer Division, whose strength had been severely depleted during futile counterattacks at Kustrin. Eventually, the corps would consist of five divisions. When it fell back into Berlin, it lost contact with one division, so the last battle was fought with four divisions, as well as those forces already in the city–a total of 60,000 men and 50 to 60 tanks.

The Soviet armies were well-trained and well-equipped. Their plan was to surround and capture the city on the sixth day of the offensive. By the 11th day, the Red Army was at the Elbe River. Contrary to the Soviet plan, Berlin did not surrender until May 2, a full 17 days after the offensive began. The American and Soviet troops first met on April 25 at the Elbe River, 10 days after the offensive began.

While it is difficult to say exactly how many Soviet soldiers actually participated in the assault on Berlin, the Berlin Medal was awarded to nearly 1,082,000 troops. That means the Soviet forces had more than 10 times the men the Germans had during the fight for the city itself. Even so, it took the Red Army from April 21, when it first reached the city, until May 2 to capture Berlin–a total of 12 days.

The length of time required to capture the city can be explained by the desperate German resistance, the difficulties involved in street combat and the Soviet soldiers' knowledge that the war was all but over. Soldiers have no desire to die, and it is difficult to motivate them to take extra chances if they feel that their deaths would be meaningless. The Soviet soldier had nothing to gain or prove by dying for the motherland so late in the war. Even so, losses among the three Red Army fronts involved in the operation from April 16 to May 8 totaled more than 300,000 men–over 10 percent of their total strength.

One German soldier who fought during the battle for Berlin was Siegfried Knappe. At the time of the battle, he was a major and the operations officer of the LVI Panzer Corps. Knappe, along with Ted Brusaw, has recently written Soldat, a book on his experiences in the German army from 1936 to 1949.

WWII: How were the defenses of Berlin laid out?

Knappe: The defenses of the city consisted of three rings with nine sectors. The outer ring was about 60 miles in circumference and ran around the outskirts of the city. It mainly consisted of partially dug trenches and hastily emplaced roadblocks. The middle ring was about 25 miles in circumference and made use of already existing obstacles such as the S-Bahn [surface railway] and solidly built houses. The inner ring was the center of the city and consisted of massive government buildings. In addition, there were six bombproof flak towers. Eight of the sectors, labeled A through H, radiated in a pie shape through all three defensive rings. The ninth, Z, was located in the center of the city. Sector Z had its own defensive force consisting of Hitler's SS guard units. Beyond the flak units there were no regular army units to speak of in Berlin until we arrived.

WWII: How many experienced soldiers did you have in the LVI Corps?

Knappe: I have a report here that gives a good answer to that question. It says that the fighting power when we had all five divisions was the equivalent of two divisions.

WWII: How many men would that be?

Knappe: About 40,000 men if both divisions had their full peacetime complement. The report also says that other units in Berlin were the equivalent of two to three divisions and that the Waffen SS was the equivalent of half a division. All together it says about four to five divisions consisting of 60,000 men with 50 to 60 tanks.

WWII: How good were the other units?

Knappe: Their fighting ability was limited. Some were Volkssturm [Home Guard] and Hitler Youth, and their equipment was very limited. Others, such as the anti-aircraft units, were limited in their mobility. They all tried but were not trained or equipped for infantry fighting. The Russians say in their literature [that we had] 180,000 men.

WWII: That would make it seem like a bigger victory.

Knappe: Yes. They may have come up with that number by taking the number of divisions and using their peacetime complement. But we were not even close to that.

WWII: Did you ever think that you had a chance to win the battle?

Knappe: No. It was clear from the beginning that we had no chance. We were only delaying until the Western powers could get to Berlin.

WWII: Did you ever talk among yourselves and say, 'We can hold the Russians for a week,' or some other time period?

Knappe: No, we didn't put anything in time limits like that. We knew that we could hold out long enough for the Western powers to get to Berlin.

WWII: How did you, as a major, become a corps operations officer? In addition, you mention that the 20th Division was commanded by a colonel, but that is normally a major general's position. Was that fairly normal during that time of the war–to have a much lower ranking officer in those positions?

Knappe: Yes, during that time of the war crazy things were happening. As I mention in my book, I almost became the commander of a division as a major!

WWII: In Berlin, how did you communicate with and control the troops?

Knappe: We started out with the Berlin civilian telephone system. As quickly as we could, we got our own net, but we did not have all of the communications equipment that we needed. So, we were glad to have the civilian telephone system available.

WWII: How much control did you really have over the troops?

Knappe: We had good control over the troops in Berlin. We lost control over the 20th during the fierce fighting outside of the city, just like the Ninth Army lost control over us. We just didn't have all of the wireless that we should have had. All of our communications was with makeshift stuff, but we still could manage.

WWII: During World War II, the German army had a lot of ad hoc units. The Muncheberg Division was one of those, and they seemed to have done a very good job from the Seelow Heights, when they first entered combat, until the very end in Berlin. How was the German army able to do that?

Knappe: It was our training. There were still enough well-trained officers and noncommissioned officers that it could work, even at the end of the war. All of them had gone through the same training.

WWII: How could they develop unit cohesion when they were thrown together and then almost immediately sent into combat?

Knappe: That was a function of the officers and noncommissioned officers. Until Stalingrad we didn't have to do that, but after it became a regular occurrence with all of the losses and retreats. Everyone knew that if they kept together and fought together they could evade captivity or being killed.

WWII: How was the Muncheberg Division formed? Did they take individual soldiers or did they try to keep them in groups?

Knappe: Everyone knew that there would be a big fight for Berlin, and the home units got orders to send everybody to the city of Muncheberg, which is where the name came from. The general staff decided what would be needed to start a new division there. The materiel, artillery, communication equipment and anything else that would be needed was identified and arranged to be sent to Muncheberg. A division staff had already been appointed, and they were there to receive the equipment. So, when the men arrived, the equipment was organized and waiting for them. I did this in France when the Sixth Army was lost at Stalingrad. I went to France, and the people that I needed of all ranks came for a battalion of artillery plus 250 horses and the guns.

WWII: You mention in your book that the Soviets lost an opportunity to seize Berlin sooner than they actually did. Could you expand on that?

Knappe: The time that I was talking about, when they could have had Berlin much earlier than they did, was after the initial breakthroughs in our outer defenses. There was a period of time where our defenses looked like a dumbbell. One end was circling the [Adolf Hitler's] bunker and one end was circling the Olympic Stadium, which included the Pichelsdorf Bridge, where we were going to break out from, with a very long, narrow strip between the two on either side of Heerstrasse. They could have very easily attacked the bunker area by driving east, straight down Heerstrasse. In fact, they had individual tanks crossing Heerstrasse all the time. We were able to keep in contact with the units around the Olympic Stadium by the subway tunnel that ran under Heerstrasse. Every time I updated the situation map I always wondered why they didn't realize what they could do. We just didn't have enough troops to defend everywhere. The Russians just kept attacking where we were the strongest. They kept trying to get to the center of the city by the shortest way when the longer way would have been a lot easier.

WWII: You went into Hitler's bunker a number of times during the battle. Initially, the guards took away your pistol, but toward the end they stopped searching you and you were able to take your pistol in. You say in your book that you had the opportunity to shoot Hitler, and while you thought about it you decided not to. Could you elaborate on that?

Knappe: If I had shot him it would not have changed anything because the fighting was all but over.

WWII: After all of those years of Hitler being Fuhrer, what caused you to change your mind about him? Did the change occur in a day or two, or was it something that you had been thinking about for some time?

Knappe: It was not a sudden change. It was something that had started right after Stalingrad. It was not just me but a general feeling among the front-line officers. We could see what was really happening.

WWII: What made you think about killing Hitler when the opportunity was presented?

Knappe: Probably his statement to General Weidling when Weidling was asking him for permission to break out and for him to go with us. General Weidling told me that Hitler had said that he did not want to die in the street like a 'Landstreicher.' Landstreicher does not have an exact translation into English, that is why my book uses the word 'dog,' but a Landstreicher is someone like a hobo or panhandler. Both of us had seen hundreds of German soldiers die in the streets during the war, and now Hitler was saying that he did not want to die like they died. My brother died from his wounds that he received in Russia. So, both of us were very upset by Hitler's use of this word. It was just such an unbelievable comment, especially to make that type of comment to a soldier. It wasn't until this time that I finally began to realize what sort of man we had been fighting for.

WWII: So, it was that one statement?

Knappe: Yes. I just had this impulse to shoot him. I wasn't worried about being executed afterwards, for I thought that I was a dead man anyway. We had recaptured some places from the Russians during the war and whenever we did, we almost always found that the German officers had been executed. So, I thought that the Russians would execute me after I was captured. Unconsciously, I realized that I couldn't afford to make Hitler into a martyr. This would have created another Dolchstosslegende or'stabbed-in-the-back legend.' [Joseph] Goebbels [Hitler's propaganda chief] would have made the most out of it. I'm sure that he probably would have said that if the Fhrer had not been killed by a general staff officer he would have found some way to save the German people.

WWII: You mention in your book that you ate in the bunker when everyone was eating their last meal, before they were going to try to break out, and that you sat at the same table as Martin Bormann, Hitler's personal secretary. There have been stories for years that Bormann survived the war and has been seen. What do you think happened to him?

Knappe: He is dead. He was fat and untrained. If you are in a battle situation you have to be trained. You need to know what to do when someone is shooting at you. He would not have known what to do when the shooting started. I am sure that he was shot somewhere in the city. There have been several reports from people in that group that he was shot after crossing a bridge. But of course no one in the group checked on him. Everyone was just interested in themselves, and besides, no one had any love for him anyway.

WWII: You were the one who typed the order from General Weidling directing any German soldiers who were still fighting to stop after the surrender?

Knappe: That's correct. A Russian writer, Ilya Ehrenburg, incorrectly reported that a blond female secretary typed the order. I was blond at the time, but that was the only similarity. [Ilya Ehrenburg was one of the Soviet Union's top propagandists during the war.]

WWII: After the surrender, you went into a prison camp in Berlin and were transferred to a prison camp in Russia for five years?

Knappe: That's correct, but that's another story.



This article was written by Ed McCaul and originally appeared in World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!


32 Responses to “Interview With World War II German Officer Siegfried Knappe”


  1. 1
    SVB says:

    I recently finished reading "Soldat", and it was an interesting account from the 'other side'. This interview helped flesh out some of the final details from the book, it would be great to hear more from Herr Knappe.

  2. 2
    Mandar Deshpande says:

    Knappe, We are proud of You,
    heil Hitler

  3. 3
    William Davis says:

    I recently read Mr. Knappe's most interesting book about his service in the Heer. I also went to Berlin this past year and saw many of the areas he referred to in his book. In contrast to Herr Deshpane's comment about Hitler, Knappe didn't seem to like him, nor did most general staff officers. Herr Deshpande rightly should be proud of Knappe's service to Germany, but he ended up an American, and not a closet Nazi like Herr Deshpande; to hell with Hitler, rather than heil!

  4. 4
    allen monday says:

    When evil runs rampant bad things happen to good people. Mr.
    Knappe was extraordinarily lucky to survive .

  5. 5
    shane says:

    He lives in my town. German officer shown in PBS special 1 or 2 years ago. How do I view that Hitler/Nazi show-from summer one & half years back-summer of 2007??

    call shane 260-493-6043

  6. 6
    David says:

    I just finished the book Soldat and found it to be outstanding!! As a German Canadian who's grandparents and great uncles also fought in WWII for Germany I appreciated the books detail and was happily surprised at how many details were similar to my own grandfather's tales… Thankyou for putting your memoirs down into type

  7. 7
    ddoyle says:

    I bought this book on a lead from my father when he told me that the old guy that lived acroos the street was an ex-german officer during WWII. Being a military history buff, i read the book and wow! a very interesting look into the othersides perspective of war.

  8. 8
    Lou says:

    I had the pleasure of having Siegfried to my house for dinner on the mid 70's in CA. At that time he was working for NCR out of Dayton, Ohio. I knew nothing about his background but after a bottle or two of wine the discussion came to his experiences in the war. To say that it was a memorable experience would be a gross understatement.

  9. 9
    TONY says:

    Bought Soldat for fifty cents in a used book store, Once I started it,
    could not put it down. I'm a history buff and this was one of the most interesting and best written books I've ever read. Fantastic story. Herr Knappe had an amazing experience and led quite a life.

  10. 10
  11. 11
    Craig Krym says:

    I have read Major Knappe's book several times. It is a great read. I also watched the movie 'Downfall' a couple times, and have it on DVD. It chronicles the last few weeks in the Fuhrerbunker under the Reich chancellery, and is based in part on Knappe's recollections as Weidlings adjutant. The utterances of Hitler regarding the German, who he professed to love so much, are unreal. He didn't give a whit if the entire poplulace perished with him, he felt them 'unworthy' for losing the war. Anyone who glorifies Hitler has a screw loose, IMHO. I also recommend 'The Forgotten Soldier' by Sajer, and 'Panzer commander' by Hans Von Luck as well as 'Panzer Leader' by Guderian for anyone interested in WW2 in Europe from the perspective of 'the other side'.

    • 11.1
      Joseph Mens says:

      Hello Craig,

      I visited Siegfried Knappe about a dozen times in the nineties, and got to know him quite well. To me he was a gentleman and intellectual, who lived through one of the most horrible experiences imaginable and still came out a decent human being. I had nothing but respect for him.
      I worked with him on a number of initiatives, including a new book and a movie. Through an aquaintance I was able to introduce him to Lenie Riefenstahl.
      It is good that stories like Siegfried's come out; it shows that Germans were not monsters, but fellow human beings who were thrown into an impossible situation.

      Joseph Mens

  12. 12
    Clark Rich says:

    I read Mr.Knappe's book when it first was published in paperback.

    Along with Panzer Battles and the Memoirs of Colnel Hans Von Luck, I found it to be it one of the most facinating first-hand accounts of the German side of World War II.

    I was so impressed by the book, as well as Mr. Knappe, that I mailed him some of the things that the Russians took from him during his captivity: a nice wooden chess set and an Iron Cross, 2nd class.
    I also sent him a letter explaining how much I enjoyed and admired his book. To my surpise and pleasure, I was overjoyed to get a rather long "Thank You" letter from him. It is a treasured keepsake of a great man.

    I also spoke with him by phone on several occasions over the next few years. He was just as genuinely wonderful to talk with as he was to read in his book. He was married to the same wonderful war bride, as far as I know until his death.

    When last I talked with him, he said that the shrapnel and pieces of rock that had been embedded in his leg during a surprise straffing attack in Italy ( He had been on top of some rock formations sunbathing ) had started to surface through his leg which was causing him quite a bit of pain, and he had developed shingles.

    He siad that if I wanted to buy a hard copy of his book, Soldat, he would be happy to sign it for me. Unfortunately, I sent the book, but it was misplaced at his home, and I never got it back.

    I was very surprised one night about 2:00 AM to come home, flip on the History Channel and see him commenting on a segment they did on the last days in Hitler's Bunker.

    Unfortunately, I never was able to write or talk to him again. I bought him a small knife that I planned to send him at Christmas, but I heard of his death, and never sent it.

    My father, Charles S. Rich, served in the Eighth Air Force in Newcastle, England during World War II. He was barely 18, but was at Normandy on the 2nd day ( he was one of the fellows straffed by the only two German planes that made it to the beach ) He had the utmost respect for the German fighting man, saying often that I should not believe all the war movies that I watched as a kid in the 60's. He often said the average German soldat would kick your butt in a fight..
    After my short friendship with Mr.Knappe, I found that that RESPECT was , indeed, well earned. Clark Rich, La Grange, Georgia

    • 12.1
      Anna L. V. Josephs says:

      Clark, most of the atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht–yes, the Wehrmacht too, although MOST were by the SS–were committed on the eastern front. The Nazis treated the populations of occupied western countries with a measure of respect which they did not extend to the populations of the occupied eastern countries. In fact they considered Poles, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Russians "subhuman," only a notch or so above Jews. No wonder your father, who fought on the western front, never saw that side of them. Without detracting from the prowess of the German landser (GI) I respectfully disagree with him. By the way, German POWs were treated accordingly:more than 95% of GI POWs, as well as Tommiy POWs in German prison camps returned home. The unfortunate Russian POWs were nowhere as lucky. To finalize, notice that the subject of atrocities, especially against Jewish people, is never tackled in interviews with Herr Knappe. Thanks for reading. Anna. .

  13. 13
    ANGELYA says:

    THAT IS MY GREAT GRANDFATHER COOL RIGHT

  14. 14
    ANGELYA says:

    HEY FOR REALS NOT KIDDING

  15. 15
    Dontay says:

    While I too as a history buff found Major Knappe's book Soldat extremely interesting, I was very disappointed that he never addressed any feelings on the initial treatment of Jews he most certainly had to been aware of. Krystallnacht, the boycotting of Jewish shops, and laws passed preventing marrying Jews. It's also interesting that Knappe who points out in the preface, "he was not a Nazi but a man who was simply fighting for his country", winds up living in the US.

    • 15.1
      edschwall says:

      I recently read the book Soldat. For the last seven years I have been writing a book about my father and mother who met while he was a soldier in the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front. Soldat helped me to better understand combat on the Eastern Front. I have hours of taped conversation with my father but I still needed to get another opinion of the events. If any of the Knappe family could e-mail me I would enjoy a dialoque with the family. Thank you

      • 15.1.1
        Sylvia Knappe says:

        I just saw your response to reading the book written by my father and am sorry I did not see it before now.

        I would also enjoy having a dialogue with you as well but do not have your E mail address, unfortunately. It has been a year since you wrote here, but maybe we can be in touch if you see my reply.

        I am Siegfried Knappe's daughter, Sylvia Knappe, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

  16. 16
    pash in munich says:

    I too have read "Soldat" several times and have found it a very interesting and an informative book, yes, he was very lucky to survive Russian captivity and in also getting his family out of east Germany before going on to the States. In truth i am quite jealous of those on this forum who actually managed to speak and write to him.
    There too are other very good books about those that served "on the other-side, as mentioned before, Hans von Luck is definately a good read, aswell as Guy Sajer's "The Forgotten Soldier".

  17. 17
    dvf says:

    i was wondering what was going through the minds of the family while this was happening? or/and what was going through the mind of the German men that weren't apart of the Nazi party? is it possible that they were totally oblivious to what was happening to the Jews and other people that were leaving there towns/cities? did they know that people were being killed just outside their towns/cities?

    i would very much appreciate an answer. i have been starting to wonder if what they have been telling us in school actually right. i am not for the Nazis. but one does have to wonder sometimes.

  18. 18
    wm says:

    I just finished reading Major Knappe's book. I found it amazing that his descriptions of combat, his feelings, the initial effect of wounds….were remarkably similar to my own father's descriptions of those very same things when he served in the US Army as a combat trooper and had fought the Japanese…Major Knappe and my father used many of the very same words.

  19. 19

    [...] Siegfried Knappe." Historynet.com. Weider History Group, 12 June 2006. Web. 12 Apr. 2013. http://www.historynet.com/interview-with-world-war-ii-german-officer-siegfried-knappe.htm. "Berlin in the National Socialist Era." History – Berlin.de. Ed. Richard Meng. [...]

  20. 20
    frank roberts says:

    I devour a book every two weeks, and "Soldat:" was one of the most interesting – one of the most fascinating. I can't help but wonder what happened to Lilo and the three children. Everyone, and rightly so, reserves their comments on Knappe – the man, the soldier but, I must admit, I found the references to his wife and family warm, loving, and genuine.

    • 20.1
      Sylvia Knappe says:

      Dear Frank Roberts

      I just read you reply after reading my father, Siegfried Knappe's book, "Soldat", and was pleased that you were interested in knowing what happened to my mother, Lilo and his children. I am his daughter, Sylvia, and am so glad for your interest and concern. My mother passed away in April, 2002, and we three siblings are still here.

      I live in Cincinnati, Ohio and would enjoy hearing from you sometime… My brothers live in Switzerland and Kentucky.

      I am glad that you appreciated his book so much. I hope you see my reply to your comments and will respond to this….
      Sylvia Knappe

  21. 21
    Sylvia Knappe says:

    This is Sylvia Knappe and I hope that I will receive any e mail responses to my replies to a few people from this site.

    Thank you so much and my E-mail address is enclosed above.

    Sylvia Knappe

  22. 22
    Dawn says:

    Dear Sylvia,

    I was very interested to read the interview with your father and I am looking forward to reading his book. I am interested in learning more about the German consciousness prior to WWII…What was the average German concerned about or thinking of as the Nazi party came to power? If 40% of The German male population fought in WWII, what were their thoughts and attitudes towards war or another war? Was it different after the war? Did they foresee the difficulties that might lead them into war? What was grabbing their attention?

    I spent 2 weeks in Berlin this summer and was amazed at the resistance in finding answers to the above questions. Yet the post war attitudes must have been quite different to the pre-war years.

    I would appreciate any comments you have to offer,
    Dawn

    • 22.1
      Wolfgang. says:

      talking to my grandmother many years ago who lived in Salzburg Austria during & after the war & since passed away,explained to me the awe that she had towards Hitler,a man she loved & respected,she felt that prior to the start of ww2 he was a savior to the Germanic people.unfortunatly I was not old enought to think to ask the question on her thoughts on the war,my grandfather went to war as a captain in the SS.

  23. 23
    john l says:

    Didn't you even read his book?

  24. 24
    GaryL. Travis says:

    I was a US Army infantry sergeant – USA, Korea DMZ, W.Germany…Panzer Kaserne 1980-81 near Boeblingen south of Stuttgart. Your father's book was quite meaningful to me as I've always maintained to the ignorant that \German\ and \Nazi\ are not synonymous. I met a guy who was a tower guard at Dachau (I toured the camp) and I knew he could not have stopped what was happening…people in USA who criticize Germans of the 1930's-40's should recall what happened to Americans who challenged USA govt. after WW2. I'm on V.A. disability in Dayton and I am on FB.

  25. 25
    Carol Bohman says:

    I have found all this most interesting. I was but 1 month old on D Day so what I know of these times all comes from film and reading material. I wish I had asked my parents about what they experienced during these times and just what was common knowledge. I
    still cannot understand it all. I go from thinking that everything German should have been wiped off the face of the earth after the war. Everything! Their country should never have retained its land, name, names of their towns, cities, traditions, etc. And then I think how could every German go along with this? There had to be some out there that had good hearts and thought differently about what went on. I think there needs to be more eye witness testimonies from not only Officers, but the common German people. I do believe this had to be the saddest time on earth. I am an American but my ancestry is 3/4 German.

  26. 26
    Russell Harris says:

    Sylvia Knappe,

    I was unable to see an email from the previous posts. I recently finished your father's book and am very interested in what happened to your family following the war. I am a former Army Captain and was responsible for training young troops in my Armor and Cavalry units. As soldier's at Officer Candidate School, we were required to read many combat journals and battle logs to utilize them as \Lesson's Learned\ and take what other Officers had achieved (with their men) on a tactical, professional and emotional level and apply it to our command. After leading troops and experiencing my own dilemmas in combat I truly believe your father's book should be a required read at our different Military Academies. Thank you for being very patient and kind and responding to all the posts on the sight. Have a blessed day and you can add me to the list of people who believe your father was an extraordinary man and a brilliant example for other soldiers to follow.

    Russ



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