Vladimir “Vladi” Vnoucek has two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star to his name, all earned while fighting Axis forces in World War II.
But call him an American hero, and he becomes humble.
“I can only say that I am an American who served my country,” Vnoucek said. “I had a job to do and I wanted to return to the States and be with my bride.”
The 101-year-old resident of Woodstock’s Hearthstone Village made it home, rejoining his wife, Josephine, whom he’d been forced to leave just five months after marrying. But in the intervening years, Vnoucek, who was drafted into the Army in November of 1942 at age 27, encountered fierce fighting that left him lucky to be alive.
“During one difficult event, I remember lying on my stomach crawling up the side of a hill,” Vnoucek said in a recent interview. “We were working to secure a better position as a German tank was trying to fire on us. Just then, an enemy bullet struck my helmet. My helmet flew off about 10 feet away. The bullet had entered one side of my helmet just above my ear and was trying to exit the other side. I crawled over to retrieve my helmet entering a makeshift foxhole. I was injured but alive. Bleeding but not severe – the bullet had miraculously ricocheted around in my helmet, I was bandaged and ready to fight.”
For this, the first lieutenant serving in the 9th Army, with G Company, 2nd Battalion, 406th Infantry, received his first Purple Heart.
Vnoucek’s second Purple Heart was earned while retrieving one of his injured men.
“Hidden in the hedges, there was an anti-tank gun taking aim at us,” he said. “They shot and hit one of my men walking with a civilian. They were both killed. We were trying to get the civilians out of the way. I ran up to the building on the corner and stood at the door, knocking, trying to get in when a second shot rang out and the shell hit the brick retaining wall in front of the house.”
“A third shot from the anti-tank gun hit the wall next to me, causing the shrapnel and shards from the brick house to severely fracture my ankle. I can remember saying, ‘Thank God for our medics!’ I was carried away and put in a knee-high cast. I was out of service for 54 days. By the time I was ready to return to service, there wasn’t much left of the war. I received two battlefield commissions and was nearly promoted to captain.”
Vnoucek considers that fortuitous.
“I must say that I was pleased not to receive that promotion, as captains were automatically drafted for the Korean War,” he said.
Vnoucek earned his Silver Star for killing two Germans in a machine gunner nest.
“A third person surrendered, along with 10 more Germans in the area that had seen enough,” Vnoucek said. “I recall that the German commander in charge only wanted to surrender to a U.S. general. I told the interpreter to ask him if he wanted to see the general while he was dead or alive. He replied, ‘Alive,’ and we proceeded to take the soldiers as our prisoners. Later on, as the Russians were closing in on the Germans from the east, I remember watching the German soldiers drop their guns and swim across the river, surrendering to us because they didn’t want to be captured by the Russians.”
Vnoucek said he learned quickly the realities of survival on the battlefield.
“During the war, you just have to remember one main thing: kill or be killed,” he said. “Very seldom do you have time to raise your rifle to your shoulder and take aim – you learn to shoot from your hip while moving fast.”
When he returned, Vnoucek and Josephine — his wife of 56 years — had a son, Kirk, of Woodstock, and a daughter, Sandra, Hot Springs, Ark.