And where were you 62 years ago?
Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 3, 2006
June 6 is coming up. There is a diminishing supply of us &uot;kids&uot; that served in Europe during World War II and the Albert Horton Jr. Veterans Cemetery on Lake Prince is noticeably filling up.
A few days ago a young man challenged me by saying, &uot;I thought all those guys in that war would now be in their nineties.&uot; I have friends whose fathers or grandfathers were in it, but I was there. There existed a regular Army in 1941 and they were the first to go … and many younger boys volunteered to sign up.
There was also a draft, but I was only 16 in 1941, in a small town in Lower Michigan, population under three thousand. In June of 1943, I waved goodbye to family and sweetheart.
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The city erected a billboard containing the names of every serviceman. It wasn’t long before they had added another board, and my name was on the third. At 18, you were gone … the only way to escape the Army was to be physically unfit, or join another branch of service before your number was called.
Over 200 names were on that board, several were wounded, three killed, and one a prisoner in the Bataan Death March for many years, still alive today. I made it back home after three years.
After six months of training as a combat engineer, we were shipped to southern England as part of the invasion force. I was still 18 and a sergeant, skilled in demolition, mines, and bridge building, almost a man, but no whiskers. It would be a thrilling 11 months after D-Day before we met the Russians at the Elbe River on May 8, 1945. I was still in one piece. I had survived the invasion, Battle of the Bulge, Rhine Crossing, and a variety of alcoholic liquids discovered along the way … used to prevent frostbite.
After the war, I fell in love with a beautiful German girl and took an honorable discharge to stay in Germany, attempting to get her out of her country. During that year I was &uot;a boy without a country&uot; and with few rights.
After a year I gave up and tried to go home. No longer in the military, I found it was not easy to get out of Germany. Without money or influence, but a lot of gall, I stowed away on a troop ship. I was discovered after three days, lectured, and spent the next 11 days on the stormy north Atlantic as a galley slave.
But I ate well … much better than when I had been a soldier. For many years the Army billed me, but finally gave up. They figured they owed me a trip home.
My mother had died, my father retired and was living in northern Michigan. I joined him for the seven months it took to pry my bride-to-be out of American and German bureaucracies.
During the next few years we created our family, three daughters who came to Virginia with us in 1970. I never thought of the war until 1992, when I decided to visit the town in England where we received final training for D-Day. I was then sixty-seven, and only a handful of English citizens in that town even remembered us being there in 1944.
But enough did so that we were made honorary citizens … I was the only G. I. that ever came back to Totnes, England. We later made three more trips to Europe but I have avoided returning to France.
Buried in the memory of those 11 months are many tales … I have written about a few in this column, but there is more tucked away I hope to tell.
If you have never been in combat you can only imagine what it’s like to constantly wonder if your number is up. In time I will tell you. It might give you an idea of what our troops face in Iraq.
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