By Mckenzie Moore
George William Reynolds, WWII veteran, was born in Paonia, Colorado.
After attending elementary school there, he spent a few years helping his grandmother on her nearby ranch, then moved with his mother and father to Denver during the Great Depression. Following that, he moved to Jackson, Wyoming, with his aunt and uncle, where he took up work with the Forest Service.
When World War II began, Reynolds wanted to volunteer — not be drafted. Because a draft board was all that was available in Jackson and the process of enlisting was important to him, he drove to Cheyenne to officially enlist in the Air Force.
Later in his military career, he found out that through an error in the system, he had been written down as being drafted anyway. Although the error was a disappointment, it did little to diminish the impact of his story.
Reynolds’ younger sister by 11 years, Betty Thomas, recalled a number of stories he told her after returning home from the war. Although she acknowledged no one can understand or retell the experience of combat veterans in the same way the fellow combat veterans can, she hopes to share what he encountered.
Reynolds did not progress into the Air Force due to depth perception limitations. Instead, he joined the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army, then later moved up to the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. The 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment was primarily tasked with jumping into battle areas prior to the rest of the 101st Airborne Division to scout for information.
“They were doing most of their parachute jumping at night during the war,” Thomas said. “Sometimes, the Germans would hear about where they would be jumping and start the fields on fire below them. They’d be jumping, and they couldn’t stop because they were in the air, and the field’s lit up on fire.”
Thomas recalled another story her brother told her, which took place during a night jump. Reynolds’ parachute opened without issue, and his jump was overall going according to plan. However, the parachute of the man jumping behind him did not open, causing him to fall into Reynolds’ parachute and collapse it.
“They grabbed hold of each other and saw a big white square and figured it was a tennis court, that they were going to land on it and be killed,” Thomas said. “When they woke up, they were in a big straw stack.”
During the fall, the man who had jumped with Reynolds let go of his rifle. The two later found it implanted in the ground and at a 90-degree angle, demonstrating just how fast they had been falling.
Another story took place during the Battle of the Bulge around Christmas. The Allies and Germans were dug in very close to one another, and Reynolds recalled being able to hear the other side singing Christmas carols.
“He got up to wander around during the night and ran into a German soldier, and he had him at gunpoint,” Thomas said. “He looked into his eyes and saw himself. Just a young boy, probably 20 years old, and he couldn’t shoot him. He just motioned to him to get lost.”
Reynolds was injured three times in three major battles, taking place in Holland, the Battle of the Bulge and the invasion of Normandy on D-Day.
Reynolds spent time in the hospital three different times during the war. One of those times, he ran into his sister while she was working there as a field hospital nurse. The two had been unable to communicate and were unaware of each other’s whereabouts until encountering each other there.
The most long-term impact of the war for Reynolds came in the form of being wounded by shrapnel during a battle, an injury that altered the rest of his life.
“The shrapnel had pushed his uniform into his spine,” Thomas recalled. “They tried to pull his uniform coat off, and it made him faint.”
Injuries from the war caused struggles for Reynolds long after he returned home. The injuries caused by the shrapnel, which were located in his neck and spine, continued to cause pain and paralysis for the rest of his life.
“He’d get almost paralyzed from the wounds in his spine,” Thomas said. “They were never able to operate on them. He still carried a lot of that shrapnel in his spine, and every now and then it would hit a nerve and he’d go to the hospital to get a shot to relax his muscles.”
After that injury, Reynolds was sent to a resort in Germany that had been taken over by the American military. The purpose of it was to help military members heal both physically and mentally, but by spending time there, Reynolds was unable to go home with the men he had fought with.
“Because of that, he was not with his unit when they were sent home after the war,” Thomas said. “He wanted to be with his unit, they’re like a band of brothers. That bothered him. He didn’t see any of the men he knew on the way home.”
Following his return home, Reynolds pursued post-secondary education and began his career in public information, starting as a journalist.
“After he got home, he was able to go to school,” Thomas said. “He hadn’t finished high school, so he made up for it by reading the encyclopedias my mother was selling, and they accepted him into college.”
After attending the University of Wyoming, Reynolds entered the field of journalism, writing about preserving natural resources and public lands. His career continued into becoming an editor for Wyoming Wildlife Magazine, then became the chief of information and education for the state’s Game and Fish Department.
“That didn’t last long, because he was hired away by the Forest Service to do their information and education business for the whole United States Forest Service,” Thomas said.
From there, Reynolds took a job at the Bureau of Land Management, which relocated him to Phoenix, Arizona, and worked there until he retired. He then bought a small farm near Paonia to spend his retirement.
After coming home, Reynolds also married the “girl next door.” Jean Marie Mercell lived on one corner while he lived on the opposite corner, but Thomas said there was nothing between the two houses, making them next-door neighbors.
George and his wife had two children, Kathleen and Timothy.
While living on his farm, Reynolds was bitten by a tick and was infected with a serious disease that caused a very high fever — but consistent with his previous experiences, he still survived.
“After all that business in the war, to come home and be bitten by a tick,” Thomas said with a laugh.
Despite that experience, Reynolds moved back to the North Fork Valley for a reason.
“His mother and father lived there, and he lived there right up until the Great Depression,” Thomas said. “He was cremated and buried there in Paonia. He loved that country, and that’s where he bought a small farm after he retired.”
Reynolds, suffering from both physical injuries and emotional struggles — Thomas guessed he most likely had PTSD as a result of the war — didn’t speak much of his experience. However, Thomas values the stories she has and hopes to share them.
“I was still a kid at this time, so I don’t think he told this story to a lot of people, he didn’t like to talk about the war at all,” Thomas said. “But he did tell me a few stories.”
Reynolds, never writing his story and due to family health issues, without anyone else to write it for him, passed away in 2013 at 92 years old.
“That was amazing to everybody because he had so many wounds and had done so much,” Thomas said. “He didn’t write about himself, and he didn’t have an obituary because no one was around to write one for him… That’s why I really wanted to tell this little story somewhere.”
Thomas hopes that by sharing Reynolds’ story with the community where it both started and ended, she will be able to keep the story alive in the place he loved.