By Suet Lee-GrowneyApril 19, 2018
(Editor's note: This is part three of a three-part feature on a retired Army spouse who lived through the horrors of World War II. The final segment is about life during and after World War II.)
FORT SILL, Okla. -- When D-Day arrived, Zitta Wilkinson's father, Johann Uhl, decided it was no longer safe for his family to remain in France, so he fled the farm that he had been ordered by the Germans to manage. He hid his children in the back of a wagon drawn by two horses he took from the farm.
Zitta said they traveled three days and nights back to Bavaria in November 1944. Their village in Badeutz, Romania, no longer existed after war tore through the area. Johann was careful to only travel by night and stay hidden by day.
"I saw dead Soldiers from different nationalities; they were stacked up like firewood," Zitta said. "But we were strong; we know we had a mission and had to get to Bavaria."
The family picked Bavaria as their new home because when they were placed in Strasperg Displaced Persons camp in Bavaria near Ausberg, Johann met Herr Drexel, a man who owned a bicycle shop. Drexel was perhaps the only friend he ever made since 1939 when they were plucked from their small town and forced into displaced persons' camps. When the family was forced to leave Bavaria in 1941, Zitta said Drexel told her father he and his family would always have a home with him if he decided to return.
Zitta was about 15 years old when they returned to Bavaria and during the trip, she said her family cried a lot. As she recounted the many stacks of dead bodies they saw during their escape to Bavaria, her voice broke and she began wiping the tears that streamed down her cheeks.
"I cannot believe human beings could do this to each other," Zitta said. "We came from a small town in Romania and everything was so quiet. We were Poles, we were Czechs, we were Russians; they were from all over and migrated to (Badeutz). The Jewish people were our good friends, but (Adolf) Hitler hated them."
For Zitta, the coming of age years had been robbed of her and she was forced to grow into adulthood early.
THE END OF WORLD WAR II
May 25, 1945 was Zitta's birthday. It was also a turning point for her family during the war. The Uhls had just settled down in Bavaria in the same area they camped in 1939.
"We had nothing," she said. "People in town gave us food and clothes."
Zitta described the area as quiet and peaceful, almost untouched by the spoils of war because there was almost nobody left in town. At every window, white linen hung high; a symbol of surrender and peace.
The same day, an American military vehicle transporting three Soldiers drove through the village to scout the area. She said the Soldiers were kind, but they were starving. The Soldiers made a hand signal to show that they were hungry, but all Zitta's mother had was a dirt floor, some cooking utensils and three eggs.
Out of goodwill, Zitta's mother Ludwicka cooked all the food they had. Then one of the Soldiers gestured a warning in sign language to the family saying if Ludwicka tried to poison the Soldiers, they would shoot all of them. But they did not, and instead they were grateful for the kindness and returned the favor by feeding the family when the rest of the American convoy came through the town and had their dining facility set up.
"They brought us food and years later, they brought their families," she said. Zitta was eager to learn how to speak English and got a job as a nanny for a young Army family.
During this time from 1946, the U.S. government supplied free nannies to Soldiers with dependents who were stationed in Germany, said Zitta's husband, retired Chief Warrant Officer 3 Richard Wilkinson.
Zitta began nannying for American military families when they moved into Germany. For Zitta, it was a fun experience because interacting with the kids enabled her to learn the language. In turn, the children learned German from her.
"I was 16 years old and let me tell you, I took up a job I knew I could handle," she said relating her tasks to her experience caring for her four younger siblings. Among all the kids she cared for, it was watching over Monty in 1950, who was 4 at that time, that changed her life.
Monty's parents were dual military and his father was a master sergeant. Back then, televisions in homes were still an uncommon phenomenon, so Monty's father would invite three of his Soldiers to his house to play pinochle. One of Soldiers, the master sergeant, invited was a 19-year-old sergeant named Richard Wilkinson.
"My god, he was so tall and so skinny," Zitta recalled.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
Richard remembered one of the first things Zitta said to him.
"She said, 'Man, that skinny guy there can really eat; he's really got an appetite,'" he said. That was the first time her noticed her and he couldn't help but think she was pretty.
"Honestly, I think I loved my wife from the first minute I saw her -- I really do," Richard said.
The two fell in love and and got married three years later on Dec. 25 in Nuremberg, Germany. Zitta was naturalized in 1954 in El Paso, Texas, while they were stationed at Fort Bliss.
During Richard's active duty service, he was often the only person in his unit who was the weapons expert. This required him to be gone often for long periods of time on quick reaction alert status.
Richard went on to serve 30 years and retired as a chief warrant officer.
"The biggest single thing in my heart that I know of: I worked hard, -- really, really hard -- and I had a very sensitive job," he said as his voice started to break. "But I knew in my heart that I could go home and my kids never missed a meal, never went to school without their hair brushed and their shoes and socks matching. They were taken cared of. That's a tribute to her (Zitta)."
Today, they have been married for 65 years and live in Lawton. They have raised six children together, and are now grandparents.