Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 8, 2005
Memorial Day Monday I put on my burying suit and made the two-mile trip to the Lake Prince Albert G. Horton, Jr.
Veterans Cemetery for the annual celebration honoring those who did not make it back from whatever war they were in. It was in 1945 that &uot;my&uot; war ended and partly I wanted to see how many others would be there from that era. I was proud that one of my son-in-laws from the Vietnam War joined us for the remembrance, and hopeful Iraq will be behind us when my grandsons qualify by age. The number of people seated there, and number of veterans buried there surprised me. I was told over two hundred had passed on and applied for a permanent home in Suffolk.
At the rate they say we are moving on, 1500 daily, I was just happy to have escaped this year’s quota and I looked carefully around when the World War II veterans were asked to stand up. It turned out I was seated next to one and we got to talking about where we had been. Usually old veterans I meet are Navy but little by little we discovered we had trod very similar paths in Army boots from the beaches to the Russians. First I learned, like me he was a Combat Engineer and we had headed northeast from France. We had been in Holland, Belgium, Luxemburg, and were in Germany when the so-called Battle of the Bulge took place. We had both retreated back to Belgium during the miserable winter of 1944.
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Our separate outfits had each done its thing throughout those eleven months, disarming mines, building bridges, clearing land for hospitals and airfields, etc. We were miles apart but headed in the same general direction, east. Both of us were attached to the British Second Army and the American Ninth, he with the 304 Infantry, known as the &uot;Rail Splitters.&uot; Both of us are still in one piece which is way ahead of many war companions. Like me he realizes that most likely few are still around that we knew; he had lost all contacts while I am down to one old guy who is very hard of hearing. Back in England in 1944 I had sold him a Timex watch and we meet once a year over a bottle of scotch to make sure it is still running. So far, so good, and that goes for both of us.
I could hardly wait to ask my newly discovered war compatriot where he crossed the Rhine. It would be just too much coincidence for us both to have been in the same place on the same day. He said it was up near the German city of Wesel, north of the famous Remagen Bridge taken by the Americans before it could be blown apart. He told me how his outfit had waited back behind the Rhine dikes while other engineers constructed two miles of roads over swampy ground and three floating bridges to cross both the British and American armies. He was more than surprised that my outfit was part of the huge collection of engineers that had accomplished that feat. I had finally gotten ahead of him.
To top it all off both of our companies had met up with the advancing Russians at the Elbe River near the German city of Magdeburg. We were told not to build any bridges across to them because the political ramifications were not clear in Ike’s mind. We were too young to know what that meant so a few &uot;captured&uot; boats solved the problem of a Vodka celebration. We, after many months of incomplete toiletries, were not exactly in formal attire or neatly groomed, yet those folks made us look good. But I digress.
I’ve met two generals this year, two more than I met during the entire war. General Marr, running Lockheed Martin, and General Aaron Lilley, Jr., former head of Fort Eustice, speaker at the ceremony. He said all the right things and left everyone with a good feeling and a reminder that we must never forget those young people, in all the wars, who had their lives taken from them. And I’m sure he wanted us to be mindful of those who still suffer from wounds received many years ago, preventing them from leading normal lives. All went well for me that Memorial Day under a blue sky until that moment when Taps were played. The honor guard earned our salute, speakers earned our applause, but &uot;taps&uot; can tear your heart out. I’d rather hear it played right up close than from far away, trailing across the fields; that sound of finality…it can get to you.
I shook hands with several people that afternoon, even my son-in-law. And I told my new found Combat Engineer that we would meet right there next Memorial Day. We agreed to stay off that daily list of 1500…we will not participate in end-of-the-line statistics.
Robert Pocklington lives in Suffolk and is a regular News-Herald columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.