Seventy-one years ago, a young soldier left his World War II ambulance in a vehicle “graveyard” in Germany and returned home to Wisconsin. Last year, he found that ambulance in Albuquerque. Thomas Grasser, 91, was visiting the New Mexico Museum of Military History last summer when he realized the museum’s ambulance was his “home on wheels” in Europe during World War II.
Museum board member Harry Misel said museum representatives have checked everything they could and are convinced the ambulance is the same one Grasser drove. “No question,” Misel said. Grasser lives in Albuquerque now, but he grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Army drafted him during World War II. “Luckily, they let me finish high school,” he said. Grasser graduated on June 11, 1943, and was sworn into the Army six days later.
Although he didn’t know how to drive, he was designated as an ambulance driver and trained in California. “And I suspect there may still be some marks on those redwood trees from trainees’ mistakes during driving lessons” he said. Grasser finished basic training at the end of 1943 and shipped out to England at the beginning of 1944. He trained on rough terrain in northern England for a few months. “But all of a sudden, the sky was just black with planes coming and going,” he recalled. The invasion of France on D-Day had begun.
About three weeks later, Grasser and his unit landed on Omaha Beach. The landing craft couldn’t get the ambulances all the way to shore, so the soldiers had to drive through shallow water. Grasser said they made the ambulances as waterproof as possible, wrapping parts of the engines in waxy gauze-like material, duct-taping doors and putting a tube on the tail pipe to act as something like a snorkel. They drove through the water on metal grates laid on the sand for traction.
When a supply convoy headed to the front, Grasser and other ambulance drivers joined it. Early on, a plane dropped flares on the convoy. He assumed someone was going to take photos until German planes began strafing the Americans. “Talk about a bunch of scared kids,” he said.
When the planes came to the ambulances, they pulled up and stopped shooting until they were back over supply trucks. The pilots “respected the red cross” on the ambulances, he said. In France, Grasser was part of the 593rd Motor Ambulance Company in Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army. When men were wounded, they were brought to a collection point. From there, Grasser helped transport them to an evacuation hospital. Eventually, he followed the 5th Armored Division.
At one point, his unit drove up on field near Malmedy, Belgium, where retreating Germans had slaughtered about 85 American prisoners of war and left the bodies. “That’s the worst thing I’ve seen in my life,” he said. By the end of the war, Grasser had traveled through France, Belgium and Luxembourg to Germany. His company evacuated 25,000 patients between Omaha Beach and Aichach, Germany, and helped liberate two concentration camps, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
“To this day, I always say I had an angel on my shoulder because I didn’t get a scratch,” he said. Grasser thinks his unit was about two weeks away from being shipped to the Pacific when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. So, Grasser went home in 1945. In 1949, he moved to Santa Fe to attend art school.
Fast forward to last summer. An usher at Grasser’s church told him about the World War II ambulance at the military history museum, then located on Lomas Boulevard. The two visited the museum. When Misel showed them the ambulance, Grasser recognized the numbers on its bumper. Those numbers indicated the ambulance had been property of Grasser’s unit, and Ambulance No. 14, the one he drove. “The chances of that are nil,” he said.
Misel said a photo of Grasser with the ambulance during the war shows the last three digits of a serial number on the vehicle’s hood. Those same digits are on the hood of the museum’s ambulance. Santa Fe collector Nat Holzer, a World War II Pacific Theater veteran, gave it to the museum. “This was part of his collection, and we don’t know where he got it,” Misel said. Holzer died in 2008, and his children are still looking for the ambulance’s title to learn more about its history.
Since discovering the ambulance, Grasser had appeared publicly with it, most recently at a gun show this month, and shared his story. “God knows, I’m no hero,” he said. “I’m just the lucky guy who outlived all the others.”