Some soldiers deal with war trauma by never talking about it. Jack Schlegel not only describes his experiences on World War II battlefields but also maintains displays of war memorabilia around his house in Mount Tremper. He visits Europe regularly for reunions at the sites of encounters by his unit, the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd US Airborne.
Perhaps his willingness to confront the pain has something to do with his longevity. At 90, Schlegel’s hands shake a bit, and he’s hard of hearing, but he walks without a cane and keeps his house both organized and immaculate, doing all the cleaning himself. He attributes his continued fitness to physical and mental activity. He used to hunt and fish, he still cuts down trees, and he’s hooked on Turner Classic Movies.
Floor-to-ceiling shelves on the three available walls of his garage are filled with books, many of them thrillers. Except for the reference books, he said, “I’ve read all of these. I love to read.” He’s also an avid collector. In the living room is an extensive stamp collection, in neatly labeled albums, and an abundance of German beer steins with hinged lids. Oil paintings hang on many walls, as well as photos from his years serving Shandaken as town councilman, supervisor, and chief of police.
One bedroom he calls “the war room.” Here, surrounded by photos of himself in uniform, a case of hunting rifles, his Legion d’Honneur medal, three Purple Hearts, and other relics of his service, he launched into a few of his many war stories. At least one of them is documented online, in a reproduction of his debriefing in August of 1944, when he described to British Intelligence his escape from France after being taken prisoner two months earlier.
Schlegel’s unit parachuted into the countryside, skirmished with German forces until enemy tanks arrived, and was captured. At prisoner-of-war camps in Ste.-Chapelle-sur-Vie, Rheims, and Rennes, Schlegel, who speaks fluent German, served as interpreter between the prisoners and the camp administration. Born in Germany, he had come to the U.S. with his parents at the age of seven.
When American forces were nearing Rennes, plans were made to evacuate the prisoners. Schlegel pleaded with the camp doctor to be allowed to stay behind. On the war room wall is a typewritten pass signed by a Dr. Enziger. Schlegel recalled, “He told me, ‘If you should happen to find a pass on the table, you can get out through the gate.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”