Army’s Holt Zalneraitis emerged as a starting defensive end last year when the ranks were thin on the defense because of graduations and injuries. Head coach Rich Ellerson frequently mentions Zalneraitis among the Army defenders he is counting on.
In 2011, as a sophomore Zalneraitis was one of the young players on the Army roster who was asked to take on considerable responsibility on the defense. The native of Round Rock, Texas is taking a full load of science and pre-med courses at West Point in hopes of applying to medical school.
We met Cadet Zalneraitis at the recent panel discussion hosted at West Point by Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell about concussion identification and treatment. He is big guy, at 6’2” and a program weight of 230 and very polite to visitors as cadets at West Point always are.
This week, I had a chance to chat with his dad, Bruce Zalneraitis, and learned a family story about his grandfather, which inspired Holt to choose to attend West Point among a number of offers he had to play college football.
Vitold A. Zalneraitis lived in Lynn, Massachusetts and joined the Army Air Force, as it was called at the time, when what we think of as the Air Force today was part of the Army during World War II.
After training in San Antonio, Texas, the members of the 487th bomb group left for bases in England during the spring of 1944. Amidst horrendous casualty rates, Vitold survived the standard 25 missions when aircrews could rotate home but was asked to serve on backup crews for a few more missions.
On September 30, 1944, First Leutenant Zalneraitis served as the bombardier on a B17 that left Lavenham, England for a mission that would carry them in a formation with many other planes across the North Sea, the Netherlands and into Northern Germany.
Over Bielefeld, Germany something happened, the Army-Air Force "Missing Air Crew Report" said that eyewitness believed "heavy contrails and prop wash" caused the huge bomber to flip upside down, severing its right wing against the left wing of another B17.
Both planes lost major parts of their wings, went out of control, and started to fall from the sky. Vitold was the only one of the eight-man crew who escaped the plane parachuting into a German field and was injured from the landing.
Holt's grandfather was captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp where he was interrogated about the top secret Norden bombsight that was used on the American planes but revealed nothing.
Treatment at the POW Camp was reasonable, although officers were kept in a separate part of the camp from the enlisted prisoners. The winter of 1944 was cold in northern Europe and the prisoners had little heat and modest food. They exchanged some of the food they had for coal to heat their housing.
In the spring of 1945 Vitold reported that the numbers of guards on the watch towers seemed to be reducing and eventually the camp was unguarded.
The sound of artillery could be heard growing louder as the Russian Army approached from the east. Zalneraitis decided to leave the camp on his own rather than wait with the others for liberation and used his knowledge of Russian to communicate and arrange eventual passage back home through Finland.
For his heroism, he received the Distinguished Service Cross and combat injury, the Purple Heart.
Vitold came home, married and had a family while working for the Turbine Division of General Electric in Lynn that made jet engines for airplanes and turbines for power plants.
Like veterans today, Vitold suffered from the memories of his war experiences and “Survivor's Guilt” being the only member of his crew to survive the B17 crash. Eventually, he moved on his own to southern California where he found work at the McDonald Douglas plant in Long Beach.
On an occasion soon before Vitold's death in 1999, Holt and his Dad spent time with Vitold in California. The gathering included a viewing together of the movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” the epic Steven Spielberg movie which tells the story of a World War II Army ground unit fighting across France after D-Day, just the period of Vitold’s B17 flights into the same area.
Viewing this highly charged, graphic war movie with his grandfather touched Holt, who decided then as a young boy that he would serve in the military some day.
Now Cadet Zalneraitis is a junior at the United States Military Academy, starting on the defense for the famed Army football team while taking every science and pre-med course he can in hopes of being selected for medical school.
Often, people wonder why young men and women, usually the best students in their high school classes and captains of their varsity teams choose to accept the military and athletic rigor of West Point. In many cases, it is because there is a family legacy of service like Holt Zalneraitis’ grandfather Vitold.
Today, Friday September 21, is National MIA/POW Recognition Day, when those Americans who were prisoners of war like First Lt. Zalneraitis and the over-80,000 Americans including his crew members who remain Missing in Action are remembered.
Ken Kraetzer covers West Point football for WVOX in New Rochelle, NY and Sons of the American Legion Radio.