George Trojan, Casper
War service: As a teenage Polish Catholic, Trojan became forced labor for the German Army
After war: Trojan later served six and a half years in the U.S. Army, staying in the active reserves and retiring as a sergeant major. He got his GED, graduated from Georgetown University and worked for Ford Motor Company and Ingersoll Rand.
On the Web: Watch more of Trojan’s story and see profiles of other veterans at www.trib.com/honor
The streets were blocked off, and the Gestapo checked IDs.
George Trojan and his friend Stan were walking home from school. They were 15, and their cards gave away their birth year: 1928. The Gestapo considered them of a good age for forced labor and ushered them onto a truck. Trojan didn't get to say goodbye to his family.
“That was the last time I saw my hometown,” he said. “Never been back.”
Trojan’s life has been marked by so many moments of change. Change that came when government occupation shifted, when he was forced to make a decision, when he was helped by the kindness of others. The first change came four years before he was taken, on Sept. 1, 1939.
That day, Trojan was outside playing soccer when the Germans flew over his hometown, Lwow, Poland, and bombed it. The Soviet Union counterattacked, and Lwow remained under Russian occupation for two years.
The week became six days long instead of seven, Trojan remembers. Sunday was eliminated to prevent the Polish Catholics from going to church. Trojan’s family went anyway, at night every seventh day.
In the winter there was little fuel, and Trojan wore gloves and a coat during the school day. There were no books. School was more propaganda than education, he said.
“It was such a tremendous feeling of uncertainty. What’s going to happen next?” Trojan said. “Because we knew something else had to happen.”
In June 1941, the Germans attacked again, and Lwow went under Nazi occupation. Trojan watched as his Jewish neighbors were taken away. He and his brother witnessed shootings, but Trojan doesn’t talk about it.
“I don’t want to go through that again.”
When Trojan and Stan were taken from Lwow in 1943, they stuck together. They were assigned to a German cadre, building telephone lines. At first they were scared, sad. Then apprehensive. But it became an adventure for the teenagers.
The cadre's guards were noncombatant, old and injured soldiers. Trojan’s captain was a former pilot, but he had one arm. They called the guards “tough uncles” and did not fear them. They were all in the same place, eating the same thing, trying to stick out the same cold winter.
In the cadre, one group of men fell and debarked the trees, the next dug holes and raised poles, the last stretched telephone wire. Trojan was a climber, wiggling up the poles to stretch double lines. When the team finished a stretch – about two dozen poles in 10 days – they’d drive 50 miles and do it again.
One day, sitting on top of a pole, he saw an American P-38 fighter in the sky. Soon it was 500 feet off the ground, firing its machine guns.
Trojan kicked his feet free and slid down the pole to hide. He wanted to say, “I’m one of yours, don’t do this to me,” but he knew the cadre was just a target of opportunity.
From then on, they traveled at night.
“Then came the raids. B-24s and B-17s,” he said. “… When they came, the sky turned black.”
To Trojan, American bombs sounded like frying bacon, a long sizzling noise before the boom. He was in Linz, Austria, when the Americans started bombing a nearby tank factory daily. Trojan climbed inside a bomb crater for protection because he’d been told bombs never hit the same place twice. Another fell right next to Trojan, slamming him against a tree.
Trojan told Stan they needed to make a choice. They could stay and die in a bomb raid. Or they could run and risk getting caught by Soviets.
They began stashing some bread away, waiting for the right opportunity.
Then came spring, 1944.
“One night we just walked away. Took nothing with us,” Trojan said. “Just us, the way we were.”
By daylight, they reached a string of farms, what Trojan calls their “underground railroad.” Two young girls fed the fugitives and hid them in the barn the first day.
Trojan and Stan moved at night, and residents at each farm fed them, told them where and where not to go. Someone gave them civilian clothes.
They eventually ran out of farmhouses. Hungry and tired, they moved toward the main highway and found a German outpost. They decided to ask the soldier there for food.
When they got close, they saw he had a bullet hole right between his eyes.
They took the soldier’s food and turned to leave.
“I see a sign: ‘Achtung, Minen.’”
They had just walked through a minefield.
Trojan and Stan found a clear path behind the dead soldier and took to the woods. Since leaving the cadre, they’d been on the run for several weeks.
The next change in Trojan’s life came one morning as he slept in the woods. He awoke to someone kicking him, rifles pointed at his face.
He and Stan raised their hands: “Polonia! Polonia!”
The sergeant asked them if they were Polish. In Polish.
He was a Polish American soldier from Pittsburgh, Pa. He handed Trojan and Stan a can of Spam and some crackers, then took them back to the company.
The Americans fed them, let them live with them. When the war ended, they all celebrated together.
The sergeant took a liking to Trojan. He wrote to his sister in Pennsylvania, who decided to sponsor Trojan to America.
But the waiting time for a visa was 10 years.
The company commander, colonel and chaplain all wrote letters. The sergeant’s sister told her congressman Trojan’s story and got him to hurry the visa process.
“This happened throughout my life,” Trojan said. “Every time I was down, there was some stranger giving me a hand. I’m the luckiest guy alive. I should have been dead many, many years ago.”
Stan stayed in Europe, working for a U.S. relief agency before moving to Australia, where he still lives today.
In September 1946, Trojan arrived in the States.
For years after the war, Trojan was afraid to look for his family. He joined the U.S. Army, worked for Special Forces, and was limited in how much he could search.
In the late 1950s, he contacted the Polish Embassy and later the Red Cross in Warsaw, which was able to locate his relatives.
Trojan went back to Poland for the first time in 1960 and saw his brothers, sister and mother.
His sister-in-law told him later, "Mom passed away about six months after you left.
"She said, 'I saw my baby turn into a man. Time to go.'"