Still a hero, 70 years later
EAGLE — Dick Dirkes has spent countless hours writing letters urging the Army to award Prisoner Of War medals to men from his World War II unit.
Dirkes wasn’t all that interested in his own medals, but on Sunday he was awarded two for his service in Europe, his POW medal and his European Occupation medal.
“They kept after me, and finally I said I would,” Dirkes said.
Sen. Michael Bennet was in town Sunday to do the honors.
“Can you imagine that, after 70 years?!” Dirkes said.
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Three days more for war
Dirkes, 91, is a 10th Mountain Division veteran and was with an intelligence and reconnaissance unit during the final days of World War II.
On May 4, 1945, three days before Germany’s surrender ended the war in Europe, Dirkes was in the lead jeep of a jeep patrol searching for the enemy.
They weren’t hard to find.
At 7 a.m. that day, the patrol was in Austria driving as fast as the jeeps could travel, and barreling through a pea soup fog.
They rounded a curve to find a German SS Panzer tank division was coming right at them on the narrow road. Some of those SS units were fleeing into the Alps where they hoped to regroup and keep fighting.
As the Germans fled, they’d blow up bridges to keep the Allies from chasing them.
Dirkes’ unit was ordered to secure a bridge to keep them blowing it up, and to keep an eye on the enemy’s whereabouts, which is why they were on patrol so late in the war.
“We surprised them as much as they surprised us,” Dirkes said. “It was a fluid situation, they retreating and we advancing.”
The German trainees fled to the woods, but the SS troopers in their armored vehicles did not move. They were immediately off the trucks and in a defensive position with machine guns.
“We told them the war was over and to lay down their weapons; some of them did,” Dirkes said.
Others opened fire and with a 20 millimeter gun. The first two American jeeps got through, but the third took heavy fire. The gas tank in those jeeps was under the drivers seat and burst into flames. Chappie deCicco, 20, and Eddie Dowling, 22, were killed. Francis Raughley and Courtney Wynn were wounded. Everyone else was captured.
Dirkes and the others were disarmed, separated and individually interrogated by the SS commanding officer.
Dirkes said he was not abused, tortured or badgered in any way, although the Germans talked about shooting them because they were more of a burden to them than anything.
After most of that day had passed, they were released as part of a prisoner exchange agreement negotiated by Lt. William P. Hasse.
“They kept our equipment and our clothes when they turned us loose,” Dirkes said.
The U.S. Army re-equipped them and they were back in the line the next day, Dirkes said.
And why would the Army do that, with the end of the war two days away?
Dirkes seemed surprised at the question because the answer is so obvious.
“As long as they were still firing at you, you can be killed,” he said.
The Allies had plenty of prisoners to exchange. Major James Sumpter, commanding officer of the 261st Infantry, reported that the Americans had captured 400 German prisoners that day. In fact, there were so many German prisoners, the Allies had to use some of the German vehicles they’d captured to move them.
What goes around comes around.
“Coincidentally, when we were outside Vienna, the same men who captured us surrendered to us because they knew us,” Dirkes said.
Dirkes was elated and a little sheepish about Sunday’s ceremony.
“It was a minor incident, it was close to the end of the war and it was 70 years ago,” Dirkes said.
The honor is not about just that day, but about a life and legacy of service, said Patricia Hammon with the local VFW post.
In applying for his POW medal, Bennet’s staff also learned Dirkes was eligible for the Occupation of Europe medal. The senator pinned both on Dirkes as a room full of smiling family and friends looked on.
Bennet praised the 10th Mountain Division, some of whom launched the ski industry after the war.
“Their stories still ring out from those hills. Their grandchildren are here as living proof that what you fought for endures,” Bennet said.
The local VFW post has about 105 members, representing every military conflict from the present to World War II.
“I find every generation had its own military and political conflicts, and every generation has to resolve them in their own way. Mine was Vietnam,” said Pete Thompson, VFW post commander. “From my generation to your generation, we really appreciate the way you solved yours.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or email@example.com.