Remembering the soldiers of World War II

Barbara Hootman

People should never forget the job that soldiers did during World War II, Lew Ponder said a couple of weeks before Veterans Day Nov. 11.

The war was more than battles and statistics, he said. It was won by soldiers who did what they were supposed to do. It was filled with what are now called “teachable moments,” lessons, the 94-year-old veteran said, that could benefit the country now in this “fractured” time.

“It is essential for young people in school to know that we made mistakes in WWII, what those mistakes were, and how we learned from them,” he said in his home at Givens Highland Farms Retirement Community. “If you don’t know what has happened, you don’t know how not to repeat it.

“Young people need to learn about the politics that led up to the war and afterwards how the nation’s political decisions affected the American people and the country.”

Ponder’s time during World War II came late in the war, but there was still plenty of fighting left and men for the newly commissioned corporal to lead into battle.

Ponder arrived in the European War Theater in January 1945 and served there until the end of the war in May 1945. He calculated he saw fighting on 75 days. An assistant operations officer, he moved information up and down the command chain, a privileged position that allowed him to get a broader understanding of what was going on that the average soldier had.

When Col. Ponder retired in 1974, he had served in World War II, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War. A frame holding his 13 medals now hangs in his study-bedroom at Highland Farms.

“The medal that I am most proud of is the Combat Infantry Badge,” he said. “It was given to infantry soldiers who had been eye ball-to-eye ball in battle with the enemy and performed as expected. It said you did the job.”

Ponder enlisted in May 1942 and entered active duty in June 1943 as a 22-year-old commissioned second lieutenant. He had four years of ROTC and was immediately sent to Officer Candidate School. Everyone came out as a corporal.

“It was extremely difficult for men with no practical military experience,” he said. “In my OCS class of 220 candidates, only 98 of us graduated.”

During his 32 years of military service, Ponder served in both command and staff assignments. He commanded troops as small as a 12-soldier squad to a brigade of 5,500 men.

The combat he saw was in Austria.

“The Germans were back-peddling but still making stands,” he said. One incident still sticks in his mind. “After we crossed the Rhine River,” he said, “my driver headed off into the darkness. Sometimes the Germans fired on us, and sometimes the Americans shot at us. My driver was a really good one, having learned while running moonshine.

“I was fortunate to fly on four missions with an Air Force squadron flying the twin engine Martin B-26 Marauder bomber. On the third mission, anti-aircraft fire knocked out the right engine, and we barely made it back to an emergency landing strip in friendly territory.”

During the Korean War, Ponder arrived during the armistice period and did not see any active fighting. His men manned a portion of the Demilitarized Zone and trained rigorously to be ready, should the fighting start again.

He attended the Army War College in 1966, graduating in 1967, before being assigned to Vietnam.

“In the Vietnam War, I was on Gen. William Westmoreland’s staff in intelligence and regularly attended his weekly intelligence briefing,” Ponder said. “I traveled throughout much of South Vietnam. I was there during the Tet Offensive when the Vietcong managed to briefly get into Saigon and into Tan Son Nhat airport complex where our facility was located.”

Ponder retired his military career as director of testing assigned to the Department of Army Test and Evaluation Command. He and his late wife Esther moved to Blowing Rock, where they lived for 20 years. They moved to Highland Farms in 1998. He has two daughters, Carol Lou Ponder Bryant and Judith Anne Ponder Crane.

The whole nation pulled together in WWII after Pearl Harbor was bombed. In all his time as a soldier and human being, Ponder has never seen the nation “so fractured” as it is now, he said.

“We need to unify our nation,he said. “We don’t have to agree on everything, but we do need to listen to all sides of issues. Our nation is not really a republic any more. The heart may be in one party, but the mind needs to know what is going on in both parties.”