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Cheektowaga veteran recalls act of mercy amid intense combat of World War II

Roy E. Nieman, 90

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Cheektowaga

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1944-46

Most prominent honors: two Bronze Stars, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: Rifleman, Browning automatic rifle

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

The rings in a tree are said to measure its age. Roy E. Nieman, who celebrates turning 90 this Monday, has a story from World War II about young trees and a young fleeing German soldier that proves no matter how old you grow, compassion and comedy can be your companions.

An expert marksman, Nieman recalls how he was in hot pursuit of this enemy soldier dashing down a street and taking cover behind the narrow trees along the road leading into a German town.

“The trees mustn’t have been very old. They were about 4 inches in diameter, and it was comical to see him run and hide behind one tree and then another,” Nieman says. “The trees weren’t really protecting him, and I could have shot him. But I shot above his head. He finally hollered out something in German and walked into the street with his hands up and surrendered.”

A member of the church choir at Army boot camp in Spartanburg, S.C., Nieman felt good about showing mercy.

That virtue can be rare in wars. It was either kill or be killed, says Nieman, who had fought in some of the war’s toughest combat, including the Battle of the Bulge.

But even during that pivotal battle, Nieman recalls an act of mercy. He heard a German soldier in nearby brush yelling, “Comrade, comrade!”

Nieman sensed that something was wrong. He started heading toward the brush to investigate.

“Hey, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” his buddy shouted.

“I’m going to see what’s going on,” Nieman answered.

The other soldier thought that was a bad idea.

“Jeez, don’t go. You don’t know what that is all about,” he said.

Nieman discarded the advice.

“I told him, ‘Here’s my gun. Cover me,’ ” he recalled.

Unarmed, Nieman walked into the brush and noticed a young German with his hands up in the air.

“He was hollering, ‘Comrade!’ I grabbed him and said in German, ‘What’s the matter?’ My parents were German, and I spoke a little of it,” Nieman says. “He told me his lieutenant had shot him in the right leg because he was surrendering. His pant leg was all bloody, and he was limping. I put my arm around him and helped him walk back to my foxhole. My buddy asked me, ‘Are you crazy?’

“I said, ‘Forget it, call the medic.’ A medic arrived and carried him away.”

Nieman’s ability with weapons, whether it be a machine gun or a mortar, was dead-on and had earned him a special job.

“I was the BAR. That stands for Browning Automatic Rifle. My gun could let out a barrage of bullets with one pull of the trigger,” he says, noting that he opened fire sparingly. “The Germans knew the power of the gun, and if they heard me shooting it, they’d zero in on me.”

Even though he was cautious, there was no escaping danger.

“One time in the Battle of the Bulge, they were firing artillery shells, and my buddy and I dove into a hole caused by bombshell,” Nieman recalls. “My buddy said to me, ‘You’re bleeding.’ He reached into my uniform to my left shoulder blade and he pulled out a piece of shrapnel.”

Another time, outside Frankfurt, when the Germans were running low on artillery rounds, the enemy improvised and used concussion bombs.

“The bombs were hitting the treetops and would fall to the ground and explode,” he says. “I was about 15 feet away from one, and it blew off my helmet and knocked me right to the ground and damaged my right ear.”

The effects of that explosion stayed with him.

“I have ringing in my ear 24 hours a day,” he says. “I was told to turn the radio on. That helps. It gets my mind off it.”

A Lutheran with a strong faith since boyhood, Nieman recalls when he led a squad into the German town of Marburg.

“I just had this feeling that we shouldn’t go down the main street. I said, ‘We’re going to the left, two streets down.’ Why I said that, I don’t know,” he says. “One of the guys said, ‘How do you know there’s a street there?’ I said, ‘Shut up and follow me.’

“As it turns out, we went down that second street, and that’s when we came up behind the Germans who were on the main street waiting for us. They surrendered right away. I still get chills when I think about that.”

If that wasn’t proof enough to him that the angels, or perhaps the spirits of his German ancestors, were watching over him, Nieman says, another spiritual moment presented itself at Marburg.

“After we took the town,” he says, “a lieutenant came up to me and pointed to this church and said, ‘That’s where Martin Luther wrote the Luther Bible.’ ”

And as a devout Lutheran, Nieman took that as a sign of supernatural protection.

When Nieman returned home, he married his high school sweetheart, Jean Bowen, and they raised two sons. Nieman worked as a carpet installer for major area retailers, and his wife worked in retail sales, finishing her career selling mobile homes.

Their younger son, Jeffrey, followed in his father’s footsteps and also installed carpeting and later opened his own store in North Tonawanda.

The older son, Roy Jr., had a different calling. He became a minister, inheriting some of his dad’s deep sense of religious aspects of life.

After being married for 60 years, Nieman’s wife died in 2007, but his faith sustains him, and he believes with all his heart that he will one day be reunited with her.

“Jean was such a good woman,” the 90-year-old widower says. “I knew her since she was 13.”