OKEECHOBEE — Victor Weiger was one of Okeechobee’s own CCC/WWII heroes, and five years after he died at 93, his widow from Buckhead Ridge continues to go see his fellow conservation warriors in Sebring every fall.
Most folks know what “WWII” means. But probably not what “CCC” means.
Among the Sunshine State’s millions of retirees, a tiny contingent of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) alumni are still living, approaching 100 years of age. Believe it or not, those able to, still get together every autumn. They were the original conservation warriors.
All those guys — teenagers at the time — went into the United States military forces shortly after Pearl Harbor and became the winners of World War II. The Japanese attack, causing the largest single loss of life in American history before 9/11, happened 78 years ago yesterday, on Dec. 7, 1941.
Four of these men still live in Florida. There may be more. The Lake Okeechobee News was fortunate enough to find these guys because of the yearly CCC Festival gatherings at Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring.
(It was the very first Florida state park, bearing many features constructed by “CCC Boys” in the 1930s, in case you didn’t know. You can learn the history by following the “CCC Boys History” in these pages during 2020 as we track down the others.)
Victor Weiger died in 2014, but his life is still as remarkable as the times he lived in.
This story is told courtesy of his widow, Mary Ann Holewinski, who lives in Buckhead Ridge (Glades County) near Okeechobee.
The late Mr. Weiger (rhymes with “tiger”) was born in Germany and came to the United States at the age of 6 or 7 with his mom and brother, she said. He later fought there under Gen. George S. Patton during the war and earned a Bronze Star.
Victor was only about 16 when he enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937 under his brother’s name (Antone) because he was two years older — you were supposed to be 18 to join — but this is a common story among the CCC Boys.
“He served during 1937 and ’38 at Camp Strongs in Upper Michigan for six months,” Ms. Holewinski said. “It was out in the Northwoods. He chopped down trees, clearing and then planting trees. Clearing mostly, on a reforestation crew,” she related.
“They wanted Victor to sign up for another six months, but for some reason he went back to Chicago,” where they’d settled. Perhaps he didn’t like the work or the weather, but he then went to work in the auto-body shop of a Hudson dealership in the city.
He enrolled in the Army, served from October 1944 to June 1946 in Germany under Gen. Patton and was awarded a Bronze Star with merit citation.
“We met in 1978 and when he passed away, we were married for a bunch of years. He had four kids at the time; we didn’t have any together,” she said.
The couple started going to the CCC festivals, which have been staged at Highlands Hammock State Park for going on 40 years, in 2003, then attended the next 10. “They always have a marvelous affair, with a luncheon, they honor the guys and it’s just a great event. And we went every year since. And even after Vic died I’ve been going every year, just keeping in touch with everybody,” Ms. Holewinski said.
They also did a lot of traveling during their years together, several times to his native country to visit extended family “and also the places he was in the war.”
That included the Saar River, the site where he earned the Bronze Star for ferrying rations and ammunition across the river and standing guard during the 1944-45 invasion of Germany.
She said that after Vic died at 93 on her birthday in 2014 — she still calls him that — “I was looking for something to memorialize him with, and the museum there to see … because he thoroughly enjoyed his time in ‘The Cs’ and in the Army. Those were two big major events in his life, and so I went to the museum, and we had a plaque of timber tools which is on the wall now. I donated that, and made some other donations.”
The couple acquired that during a trip to see Camp Strongs. “We checked out the little town where the camp was, and there was not a single trace of the camp. It was just all wooded over; even the entrance, that was gone. So we went to a little corner store and asked what happened to the old CCC camp, but there was a guy who was in the C’s who lived down the road and he did wood carvings.”
They went to visit him and bought some of his original artworks. The plaque she donated — Vic wouldn’t let her while he was alive — had miniature carved depictions of the tools the CCC Boys used in their work.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, a couple of weeks after the CCC Festival, her nieces in Lakeland invited her up for a holiday dinner in Sebring, and then they visited the park and the CCC Museum there, one of only a couple of dozen existing in the U.S.
“They were awestruck by the contents of the museum, and then we went on the tram ride,” Ms. Holewinski said.
The museum building itself was also constructed by the CCC.