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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

Wartime Stories: A Tale of Two Grandfathers (Bill Sheftall and Lothar Tresp)

SOURCE: Columbus Connections: A Collection of Wartime Stories by Lynn Willoughby (2007).


Lucy Banks, Andrew, and McKay Sheftall – the children of John and Lucy Sheftall – have a unique heritage. One of their grandfathers flew P-47s for the American Air Force; their other grandfather fought for the enemy, in a Prussian tank company of the German army. The lives of these two patriarchs were vastly different and yet complimentary. Bill Sheftall was orphaned in Georgia just before the war started. He joined the service to make a name for himself. Lothar Tresp was orphaned by the war and drafted as a teenager into the German army. There he suffered the kind of privation that naturally matures a boy into a man. About the time he graduated from high school, Bill Sheftall buried both parents in Macon. Left to make his mark in the world without the benefit of parental support, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, trained as a combat pilot, and became a second lieutenant in the spring of 1944. Assigned to the Fifty-seventh Fight Group of the Sixty-fifth Fighter Squadron, base in Grosseto, Italy, Bill piloted the “Georgia Peach,” a P-47 Thunderbolt, in raids over Italy. His most intense months fell between January and April 1945 when he earned the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters and the Silver Star.

Bill Sheftall's P-47 Thunderbolt, the Georgia Peach

Near Ferrara, Italy, shell fragments from intense anti-aircraft fire wounded him about the face and hands and heavily damaged his aircraft. But despite his pain, Sheftall kept his crippled plane in formation for a perfect run over the objective and released his bombs with devastating effect on this vital military position. At Vicenza, Italy, Sheftall bombed an important marshalling yard. Displaying perfect accuracy, he cut the railroad in three places and destroyed five box cars, then he strafed an enemy camp, inflicting serious damages. Near Roverto, Italy, Lieutenant Sheftall made direct hits, which again cut the railroad tracks in two and severely damaged a bridge. Between his perilous missions, this Georgia boy lived a relatively glamorous life, some of it in a commandeered Italian villa, even driving an Italian sports car on occasion. On leave at Cannes, France, he had the good fortune to swim in the sparkling Mediterranean Sea with friends. Ultimately, Sheftall’s seventy-four combat missions proved him to be a brave and capable man. At the war’s end, his newfound confidence whisked him on to college and law school. He married a girl he had known since grammar school and raised a family in Macon. When Bill retired in 1996, he and Jo Banks returned to her native city and the grounds of her ancestral home, The Cedars, to be close to their son John and his family, who had recently restored the 1836 Columbus home.

Bill Sheftall receives the Silver Star Medal

During World War II, John Sheftall’s children’s other grandfather had experienced a very different childhood across the Atlantic in East Prussia. Lothar Tresp’s father stood out among the citizens of Ortelsburg. As a decorated veteran of the first world war, he was the only doctor in town who refused to join the Nazi Party in the 1930s. Although he was politically opposed to the government, Dr. Tresp felt a civic obligation to remain in Ortelsburg, even though the Russians were closing in on them from the east. In February 1943, when Lothar was only fifteen years old, the boys of his school were drafted to work as Air Force helpers in anti-aircraft Batteries at Bremen and Wangeroog. The next summer Lothar was drafted into the regular army. Just before he reported for duty, he visited his parents for what turned out to be the last time. This was a bittersweet reunion. His brother had just been killed in the war, and with the Russians moving steadily toward Ortelsburg, each evening his father chose the very best bottle of wine from his extensive cellar because there was no use saving it for the Russian army to drink. After Lothar reported for duty, the Russians swept through Ortelsburg. His parents tried to flee but were caught in the crush of people trying to escape and did not survive.

Meanwhile, Lothar was serving in East Prussia in a tank company, which had no tanks, but were nevertheless charged with holding back the immense Russian army. In the bleak heart of this deadly winter, Lothar was shot in the neck. To get to a first aid station, he walked for miles and then lay in a horse-drawn wagon that conveyed him to a makeshift hospital in an old school building. When Lothar learned that the “sitting patients” could be transported to Pillau on the Prussian coast, he determined to be able to sit up. From Pillau he endured three days lying on the bare ribs of an old freighter before taking a train to Regensburg in Bavaria. From another makeshift hospital he was finally discharged, just as the American poured in, and his army capitulated. Because he spoke English, had a driver’s license, and never joined the Nazi Party, Lothar was made a driver and switchboard operator for the Americans. A few years later, he came to America to study at the University of Georgia and there met his future wife Lucy in English class. After earning a PHD in history at the University of Wuerzburg in 1952, Lothar taught history at UGA for the next thirty-seven years and also directed the Honors Program.

His daughter Lucy met John Sheftall at UGA, and they soon married. After John and Lucy moved to The Cedars, the Tresps visited often. Lothar especially enjoyed conversing with John’s father while the two veterans sipped bourbon from rocking chairs on the front porch. Long after the guns were silenced, Lothar Tresp and Bill Sheftall enjoyed a special bond, forged from their common experiences of war and a shared love for their blended families.

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