Jardine: Modesto vet helps to mark camp's liberation

From the e-mails, voice mails and old-fashioned casual conversations:

WELL-CONNECTED Count Modesto's Jim Sanders among the 13 American war veterans invited to Germany to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the German concentration camp at Weimar Buchenwald earlier this month.

Sanders, 85, wrote about his wartime experiences in a book titled "Saving Lives, Saving Memories: A 19-Year-Old Ambulance Driver in the Wake of Patton's Army."

He was there when Gens. Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and George Patton saw the horrific conditions of the camps for the first time at the war's end. Sanders came upon the labor camp at Ohdruf and found no survivors before going on to Buchenwald, where corpses were stacked like cordwood, but where there also were survivors.

"(Survivors) called us liberators, but the Germans knew we were coming up the road," Sanders said. "Any smart German put on his civilian clothes and ran. Any of them that stuck around were killed (by the survivors)."

He and others on ambulance crews helped the survivors get medical care, at the same time witnessing the unimaginable inhumanity of the Third Reich.

"Of all the people there (for the commemoration event), I might have been the only one who was hands-on," Sanders said. "The rest of them saw it and went on (to other assignments)."

Local government officials paid for Sanders and the others to attend the ceremonies. While he was there, Sanders struck up a conversation with 85-year-old Charles Payne, who was a private first class in the Army's 89th division at the war's end. Payne, as it turns out, is President Barack Obama's great-uncle (Payne's sister was Obama's grandmother). When Payne asked for a copy of Sanders' book, he sent two: one for Payne and one to forward to the White House so the president can "learn something about what we did in World War II," Sanders said.

Sanders, accompanied by son Tim and granddaughter Maria, a German language teacher in Tennessee, won't be returning if they have another reunion in five years.

"I told 'em I wouldn't be coming back for a 70th," he said.

Sanders said he's sold or given away 900 of the 1,000 copies of his book, printed at his expense with little chance of breaking even.

"If you can put my Web site in there, maybe I can sell the last 100," he said.

Fair enough. It's

PACKERS' REUNION Kennedy Meadows Resort, 57 miles east of Sonora and a pack station since 1917, will hold its first packers' reunion May 1 at the resort. Owner Matt Bloom said he expects more than 150 people to attend, including former and current packers and their families. He already has 115 confirmations, including Bob Anderson of Jamestown, who began packing mules and horses at the resort in the 1940s. Kennedy's cabins, store and saloon open for the season Friday, in time for the stream trout season's opening Saturday morning. For more, visit the resort's Web site at

A FINAL TOAST Oakdale's Dan Donnelly liked to call himself America's oldest living kamikaze pilot, the irony being that kamikazes basically flew one-way missions with no return-trip ticket. He came home -- or to his base, at least -- every night safe and sound.

One of Oakdale's great characters, Donnelly -- who died Saturday at 94 -- worked in a top-secret Navy program involving drone planes during World War II. He trailed a second plane, controlling the bomb-laden drone by remote control. The plan was to send the unmanned drones crashing into Japanese ships, sacrificing the aircraft but not pilots. The war, though, ended before he got to try it on a live enemy target.

Decades later, in 2006, he became the oldest known veteran to land on an aircraft carrier when he set down on a flattop near San Diego.

And over a glass of bourbon make that a double at lunch, he'd tell you that he was a descendant of Irish heavyweight boxing champion Dan Donnelly, whose unusually long right arm was removed by a souvenir-hunting doctor after his death in 1820. The arm went on display in New York as recently as 2006.

BET YOU DIDN'T KNOW That country singers Del Reeves and Ellen Schiell were married right here in Modesto, in front of 1,200 people watching "The Chester Smith Show," in 1956. Or that Jerry Lee Lewis, who played a concert at Modesto Junior College in 1990, began kicking the stool away from the piano thanks to the advice of another showman, comedian Milton Berle.

Turlock resident Jack Selover spent 35 years collecting these and more than 600 other factoids, which he's compiled into a book appropriately titled "Little Known Facts about Country Music." Think of it as the country music version of "Uncle John's Absolutely Absorbing Bathroom Reader."

Selover, 73, a performer and songwriter for more than five decades, opened for the likes of Patsy Cline, Carl Perkins and other top names, and still plays locally. The book, which retails for $19.99, is available through various online sites, including

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or