By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — We should all have a nickname like Nathan Zuses.
The World War II veteran goes by “Zues,” pronounced the same as “Zeus,” the mythical Greek God of the sky, lightning, thunder, law, order and justice.
Seventy years ago, Zues, as he likes to be known, was toting a 50-caliber machine gun through the Ardennes region in Belgium as part of a U.S. Army anti-aircraft unit fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.
Monday saw Zues engaged in less hostile combat — a spirited game of Bingo with other senior members of Project Independence at Middlebury’s Elderly Services. Zues won his first Bingo engagement of the day and agreed to talk about his full life and an eventful World War II record that included a Purple Heart and two downed planes to his credit.
Zues was born on Feb. 8, 1925, in the Bronx, N.Y. He has the accent to prove it.
“I’m 90 and a half,” he said with a coy smile that lit up a seasoned visage crowned by a thick mane of grey hair.
He spent his life in New York’s Westchester County before moving to Whiting around four years ago to be closer to a step-daughter who lives there.
Children of Zues’s generation had to grow up quickly. The United States was fully invested in WWII by the time Zues entered his senior year of high school in 1942. In 1943, the Draft Board served notice that Zues needn’t bother enrolling in college that fall. Uncle Sam needed him for military service, though Zues was allowed to finish high school and enroll in July. He noted some of his classmates left a little earlier and were quickly thrust into battle. Many of them didn’t survive, he said.
With some help, Zues was able to sign on with the Army and steer clear of what he considered to be a less attractive Navy post to which he had originally been assigned. He spent 22 weeks in basic training at Fort Eustis, Va., before joining the 376th anti-aircraft unit. He was a machine gunner on a team of around a dozen men with a 40-millimeter cannon who were constantly on the move throughout Europe protecting installations threatened by the Luftwaffe, the German air force.
He arrived in Normandy, France, on June 9, three days after D-Day. He would spend the balance of WWII fighting his way through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Zues was among the first U.S. troops to cross into Germany on March 7, 1945, via the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine River at Remagen.
A lot of his time was spent travelling from hot zone to hot zone.
“I had to dig a (fox) hole every day,” Zues said of his routine. “We moved around and saw a lot of action.”
The unit used its cannon to take out enemy aircraft threatening Allied troops or assets. And Zues fired his machine gun in support, bringing down two planes: One German and one American. The American plane was not a case of friendly fire. Zues explained that it was a P-51 that Nazi forces had captured and adorned with Swastikas.
Zues said he didn’t follow all the military protocols for having his two aircraft episodes officially recorded.
“When I knocked the plane down, I was supposed to get a piece of the plane, and an affidavit that I shot it down,” Zues said. “I told them, ‘I’m not here to play games; I’m fighting a war,’ so I didn’t do it.”
Bringing down a plane with a machine gun is not an easy task, as one can imagine. Zues learned when and when not to take such a gamble based on altitude and other variables.
“We were told to fire at the (aircraft) silhouettes,” Zues said, adding he burned up five machine guns (from repetitive firing) during his time in the war.
Life on the front could be difficult, Zues said. Along with digging a five-foot-by-five-foot foxhole just about every day, decent food was hard to come by. Zues recalled trading fresh bread rations for kitchen-cooked food to supplement the Army field rations that were the menu staple for most soldiers.
In addition to providing machine gun muscle, Zues served as an unofficial interpreter for his unit. He took some French and other language classes in school, and was well-versed in Jewish dialects that had some similarities with the Romance languages. He was able, on one occasion, to negotiate a sales transaction between a German storekeeper and some U.S. soldiers, who assumed they could take the items for free.
“He was very appreciative,” Zues said of the German merchant.
Zues sustained a wounded hand, from a piece of bomb shrapnel, for which he earned a Purple Heart during the Battle of the Bulge. He thought his military career had come to an end when Germany surrendered in May of 1945, but the Army wanted to extend his tour and send him to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. Zues was spared from a Pacific tour when his father died as hostilities in Europe came to a close.
“I did what I was told to do,” Zues said of his time in the military. “I didn’t look to get into any trouble.”
Upon his return to New York, Zues took advantage of the G.I. Bill and attended New York State University. His goal was to become a mechanical engineer. But he didn’t find a lot of work in that field and soon shifted his focus to plumbing — specifically, the design of plumbing infrastructure. He freelanced, drawing plumbing systems for new construction projects throughout New York. He proudly notes that the plumbing for the apartment houses on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan used his pipe drawings.
Zues retired at age 65 while living in Peekskill, N.Y. He was married twice and has three grown children.
He’s happy to have transplanted to the Green Mountain State and a slower-paced lifestyle.
“I like it here in Vermont,” he said.
John Flowers is at email@example.com.