Ridgefield Veterans Day: Sementini reflects on service in Cold War Germany
Raymond Sementini remembers his chaotic welcome to Camp Wildflecken in November 1963.
“I arrived in Germany this first week of November, and that was scary enough to begin with as our post was located very close to the border of East Germany and West Germany. Then our president was assassinated a few weeks later,” recalled Sementini, an Army veteran and member of Ridgefield’s American Legion Post 78. “When that happened, it felt like the ceiling was going to cave in. Rumors were running rampant around camp about what would happen next. It was unsettling.”
Sementini, who is set to deliver the keynote address at Monday’s Veterans Day ceremony, was drafted into the Army in 1963 and was assigned to the 54th Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Engineering Battalion in Wildflecken.
“The camp was discovered up in the mountains after the war had ended in 1945,” Sementini said. “It was the only German post that went undetected during the war, and that’s because it was built on a hill and was covered by all these trees. There was also this massive camouflage netting that hooked on top of all the buildings to prevent our pilots from seeing it from the sky.”
Before the base became a displaced persons camp, housing approximately 20,000 displaced persons from April 1945 to 1951, it was a major military training post for the Wehrmacht — the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany — from 1937 to 1945.
“Troops were trained there to go into Russia, and I could see why it was the ideal setting for that specific purpose — there was more than a dozen feet on the ground, and that made it resembled Russia,” Sementini said. “The amount snow was incredible. ... It was really cold the whole time I was there and that’s because it’s so high up in the mountains.”
Sementini’s post boasted more than 60 buildings and hosted up to 9,000 soldiers. There were still remnants of Nazi armor and artillery when he arrived in 1963.
“We found steal turrets in the old bunkers,” Sementini recalled. “They were hidden in these concrete cylinders that had been used to raise and lower the guns when needed. There were cannons, too ... The Germans were ready to protect this post at all costs.”
Walking around the camp, left soldiers with an eerie feeling.
“It was spooky standing where the Nazis had been,” said Sementini, who never returned Wildflecken after his 20 months of service.
“What was really crazy was how intact all the buildings were,” he added. “The entire camp was so well preserved, and that’s why it eventually was used as a displaced persons camp after the war had ended.”
While in Wildflecken, Sementini drove officers in an Army Jeep around the area and helped accompany fellow soldiers when they built bridges.
“The officers were mapping different facilities in the area — wood mills, machine shops, ammunition factories,” he said. “The goal was to identify anything that might become a factor.”
With the country divided, the U.S. Army wanted to protect against any possible uprisings — either from Germany’s eight million foreign displaced persons or Russian communists in East Germany.
“We were never in Berlin,” Sementini said. “We went out for a day at a time, mostly right around the post. When we weren’t doing the intelligence and reconnaissance, we would help with the engineering. We would police around the area where our guys were building bridges.”
The unit’s primary job was building bridges, and the structures were constructed to be temporary.
“They had to be movable,” he said. “A lot of them were built and then taken down to be used elsewhere. We had a lot of other conflicts going on at that time. ... Germany, Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East — the Cold War never really went away.”
Notice from Uncle Sam
Sementini received a bachelor’s degree in business and graphics from Bridgeport University before being drafted.
“I had a deferment because I was in college and was working at the time in Stamford,” he said. “And then all of a sudden came the notice from Uncle Sam. Next thing I knew I was training in New Jersey.”
The Army veteran trained as a high speed radio operator and Morse code translator but didn’t have much of a need for those skills in Germany.
“The radio in my Jeep was voice transmission,” he said.
Sementini said he didn’t enjoy the physical or technical training he endured for four months before being shipped out overseas.
“It wasn’t much of a choice,” he said. “I did what I had to do and I kept at it. The more I did, the faster I became. ... I didn’t use any of those [radio] skills in Germany, though. I never saw another Morse code machine after leaving the States.”
He was on one of the last U.S. Army deployments to go abroad by ship and not by air.
“From then on it was all air transport,” he said. “I took a ship though from New York and then a train to Frankfurt from the port. We transferred from there and took another train and went up the mountain.”
The young and the restless
In Germany, he was also one of the oldest men in the battalion.
“Most of the guys I served with were in their late teens and I was 26 years old so I always felt a little uncomfortable,” Sementini said.
Age wasn’t the only isolation factor — the mountains left plenty of troops stranded for months at a time.
“Most of them were completely isolated because there was only one train that went up and down the mountain,” he recalled. “There were some guys who went two whole years without getting off that hill ... And that’s because they had no money to go anywhere. They would get paid and they would fritter it away gambling or buying records. They had no money so they were stuck there.”
Fortunately, Sementini had bought his own car.
“About three months in I said to myself, ‘I can’t be stuck here,’ so I came up with a plan to get some independent transportation,” he said. “I wrote my dad back home and had him sell my old car in the States. He sent me the money and I used that to get a little square-back Volkswagen. I bought it for $1,600 and ended up transporting it back home for nothing.”
When he was discharged in 1965, he ended up taking that same German-bought car across the country to California where he invested in a cosmetic distribution business.
It was an experience not every soldier got to enjoy during the turbulent 1960s.
“We were told we were going to Germany — Vietnam was never mentioned,” Sementini said. “But when I was discharged, many of the guys I was serving with still had time to serve and a good many were sent over to Vietnam. I remember it well. Me and the others who were discharged were relieved we didn’t have to go from Germany to Vietnam or Cambodia. A lot of guys ended up in Cambodia.”
Joining the Legion
Sementini said after his discharge he entered the U.S. Army Reserve, where he served for two more years.
“I thought I was done,” he said. “I never even gave it the most remote thought that I’d be associated with another Army group.”
Four decades late, Sementini found himself in a conversation with George Besse — commander of Ridgefield’s American Legion Post 78.
“He recruited me big time, and that ended up being a great decision,” he said. “They’re a bunch of nice guys and I like to socialize and march with them. I plan on mentioning that in my speech — my ‘recruitment’ and how important the Legion here is in town.”
He was surprised when Besse asked him to be this year’s featured speaker.
“I was bowled over by it,” Sementini said. “I asked him, ‘George, are you sure?’ but he was very encouraging. I was really caught off guard by it but the fact of the matter is: I’m absolutely honored. I’m glad I can do this and talk about my experience serving in the Cold War. And I’m grateful for it because it’s allowed me to do some research about the area and sort of relive my time over there.”
Camp Wildflecken is still intact today. Sementini was looking at aerial images of it on Google Maps a week prior to delivering his Veterans Day address.
“I couldn’t believe it —it’s still very well preserved,” he said. “It hasn’t changed much since I was there.”