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Soldier Stories: Veterans share their memories at the Central Pennsylvania World War II roundtable.

Guam, 1945

Charlie Lloyd is in a race against time.

As vice president of the Central Pennsylvania World War II Roundtable, Lloyd has the increasingly difficult task of finding veterans to share their war experiences at the group’s monthly meetings.

Most of these men are now in their early 90s. Nationally, only 620,000 of the war’s veterans remain alive, and they are dying at a rate of one every four minutes.

“I feel a sense of urgency getting these guys,” said Lloyd. “The clock is ticking to get these stories out. In the future, we’ll have to rely on authors and historians. But they won’t have the same impact.”

The roundtable’s events are free and open to the public. They’re held at Grace United Methodist Church in Hummelstown, often attracting as many as 400 people. A typical format includes opening statements, followed by featured speakers and audience questions.

Many of the talks elicit powerful emotions. In a recent meeting, U.S. army soldier Don Greenbaum described how his unit liberated the Nazi death camp at Dachau. Ernie Gross, a Romanian Jew who was liberated at Dachau, also spoke. Both now live near Philadelphia.

In another meeting, 92-year-old Milton Dienes of King of Prussia shared photographs he took in Nagasaki just 90 days after an atomic bomb destroyed much of the Japanese city. Dienes was a U.S. Army Air Corps photo reconnaissance officer based in Guam whose unit was sent into the city to document the devastation. He and the group took photos for two days amidst the rubble.

The military later destroyed the photos and negatives, so only the pictures that Dienes kept for himself survive. Some show industrial buildings reduced to twisted metal, but with smokestacks still standing. Others show a train station in operation.

“I didn’t take many pictures of people since many of them were burned from radiation,” Dienes said.

One notable meeting, from 2015, featured Harold Billow of Mount Joy, who might be the sole living survivor of the infamous Malmedy Massacre, in which German SS Panzer troops slaughtered 87 American prisoners in a Belgian field in December 1944. Billow survived by lying face down in the snow-covered field, playing dead even when a German kicked him in the back.

“Anyone who showed signs of life, they shot point blank in the head to finish him off,” Billow recalled.

Meetings run the gamut of experiences in World War II. During the January meeting, Chuck Klein of Harrisburg described his service on the USS Wasatch, which helped launch amphibious invasions of Japanese-held islands while serving as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s command ship. Klein described seeing MacArthur land on a beach in New Guinea, but then, realizing no cameras were present, went back to the boat, only to return once several photographers were on shore. April’s speaker, Kenneth Fidler, spoke about surviving after a Japanese kamikaze plane hit his ship off of the island of Okinawa.

A Blessing
The Central PA WW2 Roundtable is an offshoot of the Hershey Civil War Roundtable. The Civil War group started in 1992, motivated by a Ken Burns documentary on public television. About a decade later, club member Fred Taylor suggested starting a World War II Roundtable “because we still have the guys.”

The group’s first president, William Jackson, invited John Light, a Dickinson College mathematics professor, to speak at the initial meeting, held in March 2003 at the Hershey Public Library. Light served in the same infantry division as Jackson’s father, who perished late in the war in Germany. That meeting attracted about 25 people. One of the early speakers was Richard Winters of Hershey, commander of Easy Company, the paratrooper unit featured in the book and HBO series “Band of Brothers.”

The growth of the World War II Roundtable inspired the 2013 founding of the Central Pennsylvania Vietnam Round Table. This group meets on the second Thursday of the month at the VVA Capital Chapter 542 building in Harrisburg.

Lloyd, a Vietnam-era veteran of the Air National Guard, said that he got involved in the World War II Roundtable about six years ago. In past years, he easily could find speakers in the Harrisburg metro area. But with fewer and fewer living veterans, he has widened his search, going as far away as the Delaware River. Lloyd said that he drives to a veteran’s home to brief him on how to present his story and to make sure he can engage a large audience. He also transports speakers to and from the meetings.

Lloyd is assisted by president Kirk Gibson, who served in an Army airborne reconnaissance company from 1961 to 1964.

“Everything we do is on a volunteer basis,” Gibson said. “We all have things to do, but it’s a fun group of people.”

Lloyd likened meeting the veterans to “shaking hands with living history.”

“A lot of these veterans didn’t expect to come back,” said Lloyd. “They got on with their lives and didn’t talk about the war very much until their later years. To meet them personally is a blessing.”

The World War II Roundtable is held the first Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. at Grace United Methodist Church, 433 E. Main St., Hummelstown. For more information, visit

Author: Robert Naeye

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