Born in the cottage of his maternal grandmother in a mountain village in Croatia, John Gojmerac would not arrive in the United States until he was 14.
His father’s dream was to buy a sprawling farm in what was then Yugoslavia. To do that, Peter Gojmerac had moved to the United States and earned enough money to buy the farm, a few hours from the cottage where John had been born.
“My mother would rent out some of the fields to other families. We had a forest and we built our own home with lumber from it,” the 89-year-old Gojmerac recalled of the old country.
When World War II started in Europe, it was on to the new country – America.
Peter worried that John and older brother Charlie would end up drafted into the Yugoslav army. Having served in World War I, Peter wanted to spare his sons the hell of war. The plan backfired. The United States went to war after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
In time, both of Peter’s sons were drafted into the Army.
“My brother Charlie served as a cook at quite a few camps in the United States and eventually was sent to Hawaii to fight the Japanese, but then the atom bombs ended the war,” he says.
Unlike Charlie, John Gojmerac fought on the front lines in some of the bloodiest battles against the Germans.
When members of the 3rd Infantry Division landed at Anzio, Italy, the enemy was bent on pushing them back into the Mediterranean Sea.
“Anzio was my first battle, and I got hit by shrapnel in my left leg. A shell had exploded close to me and knocked me out. My left eardrum was also punctured,” he says. “When I came to, I realized I was in a no-man’s land. I crawled to a ditch. There were about half a dozen of us.
“The medic bandaged all the guys up who were wounded, and we were in the ditch from about 11 in the morning to 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon. A sergeant was in the ditch, and he was wounded, too. He told us no one was coming for us, but if we went about 200 yards, we would be out of the shelling and there would be more medics at a tent.
“The shelling was continuous. I think the enemy knew there were wounded soldiers in the ditch and they were aiming for us. The sergeant said to crawl or walk – any way you can navigate. My leg was hurting pretty bad. I used my rifle like a cane. We made it down to the tent.”
An ambulance later transported Gojmerac and others to a field hospital.
“They operated on my leg that night,” he says. “The next day, they took all the guys in the recovery tent down to a pier and put us on a hospital ship and took us down to Naples, where there was an Army hospital. I was there about a month and a half.”
Healed, Gojmerac rejoined his outfit.
“I was back in time for the big push. We broke out of Anzio and pushed towards Rome,” he says. “When we got to the outskirts of Rome, the Italian people informed us that the Germans had left Rome. We were there two weeks. Then we started training for the invasion of southern France. We were seasoned troops, and there was no way the Germans could stop us.”
Nevertheless, that didn’t translate into a cakewalk.
When Gojmerac landed in France, he again had a close brush with death.
“Stop, John!” another soldier shouted, having spotted a sign indicating danger. “John, you’re in a mine field!”
Gojmerac stopped cold in his tracks.
“The Germans hadn’t had time to remove the sign, and I hadn’t seen it,” Gojmerac says. “… It had the word ‘mine’ written in German on it and the skull and crossbones. I retraced my footsteps out.”
And though the Germans had forgotten to take down the sign, they sure didn’t forget how to use their weapons – something Gojmerac has never forgotten.
As a technician responsible for setting up lines of communication, he was among the first to enter a new area of operations in order to string out telephone cable so that the platoons could stay in contact. Such work made him and his buddies easy targets.
During one mission, as they unspooled cable on the shoulder of a hillside, they came under fire from two German soldiers dug in at the bottom of the hill. The three Americans raced for cover and, spotting a foxhole, leapt into it. Not long after, Gojmerac realized that his buddies were mortally wounded.
With the Germans still shooting, Gojmerac could do nothing but hunker down and spend the night in the foxhole with the bodies of his dead buddies. The next morning, he saw his chance to make a break and took it as the Germans, perhaps assuming that all three Americans were dead, came out from their hiding spot and began shooting the breeze.
Was it a ploy?
As Gojmerac ran for his life, the enemy sent a hail of bullets his way, and the young GI tripped and began tumbling down the hill. But he survived unscathed.
The Americans continued their progress deeper into France, and it was in the Vosges Mountains that Gojmerac was wounded a second time, though not by Germans.
“It was very confusing. The Germans did not know where we were, and we did not know where they were,” he says. “We stopped one morning while the captain was getting orders. He told us to wait. I was standing, and there were two American tanks at the bottom of the hill we were on.
“They assumed we were Germans, and they took a shot at me. The shell hit a tree and exploded, and the shrapnel hit my butt.
“The medic hollered, ‘Did anyone get hit?’ I had to drop my pants. He said to me, ‘John, it looks like someone cut you with a knife, but it’s not bad enough to send you away.’ He patched me up, and I walked around with ripped and bloody pants for days.”
Whether the tank crews heard the outrage of Gojmerac’s platoon members is unknown. But Gojmerac certainly heard them. “They screamed ‘Are you blind! Can’t you see we’re GIs? Go find some Germans!’ ”
The third and final time that Gojmerac was wounded occurred as the division was closing in on the Rhine River in Germany.
“An enemy mortar shell exploded near me. Some of the shrapnel hit me in the shoulder,” he recalls. “I was sent to the field hospital and then to an Army hospital in France, and that was when the war ended.”
Home in the United States, he landed a job at the General Motors forge on Kenmore Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda.
“My father had planned to move us back to the farm in Slovenia after the war, but we had lived here so long he realized that none of us, himself included, wanted to go back,” Gojmerac says. “We were used to American life. So he sold the farm.”
At age 33, Gojmerac got around to settling down. He and some friends went up to Toronto for a Croatian concert.
Disappointed, they left early and headed to a dance hall. There, he met his future wife, Jean Roberts, who hailed from England. They married and raised four children.
Jean Gojmerac, who helped coax her husband to tell his story, says he is a humble and private man and for years would not even speak of the war. “The first 10 years of our marriage, he never told me about his military service,” she says.
John Gojmerac only agreed to tell of his service after a grandson, fascinated by the history of World War II, begged him to share his story, so that it would not be lost to time.
When Gojmerac had finally gotten all the details out, he remained shy but sounded happy.
John Gojmerac, 89
• Hometown: Jesenovica, Croatia
• Residence: City of Tonawanda
• Branch: Army
• War zone: Europe
• Years of service: 1943-45
• Rank: Tech corporal
• Most prominent honors: Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge, four campaign ribbons, Presidential Unit Citation
• Specialty: Field telephone installer