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Confluence man witnessed concentration camp

October 8, 2018

(This is part of an ongoing series about World War II veterans from Somerset County. Close to 500 veterans from that war die daily, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The newspaper will tell the stories of those who remain and of those who have died as they and their families come forward. It’s the Daily American’s effort to document an important part of the nation’s history.)

James Frederick Betker told his grandson about freeing Jewish people from concentration camps during World War II. People were so skinny, he remembered. Betker said that the soldiers gave those they freed, “whole cheese wheels and they were running and pushing them around while eating the Cheese.”

Betker, 92, of Confluence, originally is from Westmoreland County. He dug coal before the war. He was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1944. Betker, who now lives in Siemons Heritage Personal Care Center in Somerset, is plainspoken about his experiences during the war.

“I killed a lot of people. I killed a lot of Germans,” Betker said. “If they were German soldiers, I had to do it. I didn’t think much about it. It was a job. I had to do it.”

Betker told his daughter, Chris Goller, about stories of his crew going into the concentration camps. He told her that some of his buddies went to look at the ovens, but he couldn’t do it. He didn’t remember which camp it was.

His other daughter Faitha Bontrager said she thought the war taught Betker to take nothing for granted.

“That’s the way he raised his 5 children,” she said. “After they way he saw people treated during the War, he wanted to be able to care for his family the best way possible.”

Jason Floyd, his grandson-in-law, also remembers Betker recounting his experience in the Battle of the Bulge.

“He was in field artillery during the battle,” Floyd said. “He said that on one of the days during the battle that the German artillery had “zeroed” his artillery group in and took out half their artillery guns and killed over half the gunnery crews.

“Then a few days later, German infantry completed a flanking maneuver and attacked Fred’s artillery group. Fred and the other artillery personnel had to use their rifles and grenades to successfully fight off the german infantry.”

His granddaughter Marie Bontrager, of Charlotte, North Carolina, talked to him about his experience in Belgium.

There were always dogs running around following them and they would feed him,” she said. “He said they would be sad to leave them because they were the ones taking care of them.

“He would also talk about how the men in his platoon would work to build up a bridge while in Germany. Every time they got it built, the Germans would bomb it

He told me before about when him and uncle Dave went to get their physicals to leave. He said Dave was about to go and then he couldn’t because of his glass eye so he went to take care of his mom, which pap was kinda tickled about.”

After the war, Betker worked in the coal mines. He married his wife Shirley and they had five kids. Faitha Bontrager remembers the war affecting him afterward in subtle ways.

“He often talked about how cold and rainy it was during his time overseas, to this day, he is always cold,” she said. “We often felt that maybe he just never got warm after serving time.”

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