CUMBERLAND — As if it happened yesterday, Jim Sterner recalled vivid details of an October 1945 crash in Luxembourg that killed a local man.
At that time, Sterner was 22 years old, a sergeant in the U.S. Army’s 84th Infantry Division and lived in Weinheim, Germany.
World War II had ended the previous month, but the Army had too many soldiers to send back to the United States at once, so a system was created that prioritized the men according to factors such as their military service, time spent overseas and decorations.
“The guys who had accumulated the most points came home first because of transportation limitations,” Sterner, now 100 “and a half” years old, said Thursday from his home in a retirement community near West Grove, Pennsylvania.
For the soldiers who waited their turn to go home, the Army developed an optional “tours of Europe program,” he said.
Sterner chose to go on a trip to Brussels for a few days.
He rode in the first of a three-truck convoy that got ahead and stopped to wait for the other two vehicles.
That’s when he and other men in his truck saw black smoke in the distance.
They backtracked to find the second truck, which carried five-gallon cans of gasoline, had collided with a steam engine near Hesperange in southern Luxembourg, Sterner said.
“It blew up in flames,” he said. “The third truck couldn’t stop. It also caught on fire,” Sterner said.
The crash killed eight soldiers and injured many others.
“I remember seeing burning bodies walking down the street … fully aflame and moaning,” he said.
Sterner didn’t know the men who died in the accident, but said to this day he’s sympathetic toward their families.
“I can’t imagine,” he said. “I feel for them.”
William “Bill” Weisenmiller
Cumberland resident William “Bill” Weisenmiller, 22, was one of the soldiers who died in the crash.
His body was reportedly badly burned and impossible to fingerprint, so he was identified by process of elimination from a roster of vehicles involved in the accident.
Weisenmiller had enlisted in the Army in Baltimore on Feb. 4, 1943.
In autumn 1945, his sister, now married as Dotty Weisenmiller Squires, was 15 years old when she and her parents, residents of the Arch Street neighborhood, planned his welcome home party.
Then they got a telegram, and learned Weisenmiller and several other soldiers had been killed in the accident.
In recent years, Squires and other relatives of Bill Weisenmiller visited a roadside park near Hesperange, Luxembourg, where a large polished stone adorned with a metal plaque lists names of the eight members of the 84th Infantry Division, 333rd Infantry Regiment, who died 79 years ago.
Karl A. Koenig
At age 18, Karl A. Koenig, a native of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, joined the Army and served in Germany in WWII.
He and Weisenmiller were in the same regiment, although there’s no known record of the two knowing each other.
Koenig, who died in 2015, didn’t talk much about WWII, but his son Kevin Koenig of California said he’s known since childhood that his dad was on one of the trucks in the 1945 crash near Hesperange.
“He had burns and injuries,” Koenig said and added a nurse wrote letters on Karl Koenig’s behalf to his family while he was hospitalized in France after the accident. “I was under the impression he was thrown from the truck.”
After he returned home, Karl Koenig went on to work as a “fabulous mechanic,” his son said.
Karl Koenig and his wife Marie, who died in 2019, had six sons and were married for 65 years.
Another of their sons, Karl R. Koenig of Florida, said he and his wife visited the Luxembourg monument for the soldiers who died in the 1945 crash.
Karl A. Koenig’s sister Kathleen Koenig, 92, lives in the Johnstown house where she and four of her siblings were born.
She was about 13 years old when her brother was in the Hesperange accident.
“My mother saved all the letters we got from him,” Kathleen Koenig said.
“I remember he had 70 shots of penicillin,” she said of her brother. “He was burned pretty badly.”
After the war
In December 1945, Sterner boarded a boat in Germany and headed home to the U.S.
He graduated from college in 1949 and took a job at the DuPont company in Virginia.
Sterner’s career included 31 years in the marketing industry and eventually landed him in Wilmington, Delaware.
He and his wife retired in Chesapeake City, Maryland, before they moved to the retirement community where Jim Sterner lives today.
“My wife died March 31, 2020,” he said of Stella “Sis” Sterner. The couple were married more than 75 years and raised five daughters.
Connecting the soldiers
Hesperange resident Christian Pettinger has conducted extensive research on the 1945 crash.
He’s also guided several members of Weisenmiller’s family on trips to areas including the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial that covers more than 50 acres and contains markers for heroes, including her brother, and the grave of Gen. George Patton, who died from injuries he sustained in a freak car accident in Germany shortly after the war.
Pettinger said he and others in his hometown are grateful for the American troops that fought for their liberty and freedom.
They’ve made it their mission to honor the soldiers.
Last year, Pettinger visited the Squires family in Cumberland.
Bill Weisenmiller’s death is part of Hesperange’s history, Pettinger said at that time.
“It’s important to keep the memory alive,” he said.
In 2014, Pettinger visited Karl Koenig.
Pettinger and Sterner also connected.
A couple of years ago, one of Sterner’s daughters posted information about his military service on social media, which attracted many people, including children of WWII veterans who have reached out to Sterner for information about the war.
The interaction with other folks has kept him busy since his wife died, Sterner said.
“It has been a wonderful experience for me,” he said.
Pettinger saw the social media post, recognized Sterner’s unit and contacted his daughter to learn more about the 1945 Hesperange accident.
The two men became friends, and Pettinger visited Sterner for his 100th birthday celebration last year.
“It’s been my pleasure knowing Christian,” Sterner said.