“I Learn a Lot from the Veterans”

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Lt. Bryce Stevens, a combat engineer with the 87th Division, said the book “brought back memories of events, sights and even smells of that time and place that I hadn’t thought of in a long time.” One of those memories was of his first shower after three months of continuous combat: “The procedure was to strip off, put your dirty clothes (except for boots) in a pile, run buck-naked across duckboards to the next tent where the showers were. There they turned on the water long enough to get wet, then turned it off while you soaped up. The water then came on again to rinse off. Back to the dressing tent where clean clothes were issued. All this in freezing weather. I don’t remember how we managed to get clothes that fit.”

Richard Meier wrote that his uncle Gordon Meier was in the Losheimergraben railroad-station fight and Pvt. Herbert Meier, a German soldier quoted in the book who was also in that fight, was a cousin of his uncle. “It makes the Bulge almost like Gettysburg—cousins across the lines from each other.”

Gordon Meier wrote: “I remember that railroad station very well. We came under artillery shelling. We got under the freight tracks (4 inches of concrete). The Germans came marching right down the railroad tracks. You could hear their steel-heeled boots. We killed lots of them. The shelling started again and we pulled back 500 yards. I remember the Germans had long overcoats and they would tuck them up around the waist so they could run easier. We got one young German officer for interrogation but he was dying. He had two pieces of bread with jelly on them.”

The spirit of those GIs—we can do it—was the great gift of the New World to the Old World in the twentieth century.
 

Robert Kettler’s father was in the 80th Division, wounded and captured near Nancy on September 22, 1944. He died in Stalag 4G on October 1. Kettler was four years old when the telegram came: “I still remember the emotional storm that swirled through our house that day. Standing by a blue chair where Mother sat weeping while family and friends gathered to console her in a ritual that was by then all too familiar, even in our small Indiana town, I knew that something monumental had happened to us.” In 1995 Kettler and his daughter and his mother paid their first visit to his father’s grave, in the American Cemetery and memorial near Liège, Belgium.

At the graveside, Kettler wrote, “I touched Mother’s arm. ‘It’s a beautiful place,’ I said.”

“Yes, it is,” she replied. “And I’m so grateful I could be here with you. But it’s a long way from Shelbyville, Indiana.”

As they drove away from the cemetery, Kettler continued, “we talked quietly in the car, our voices filled with relief and release. We had stood at my father’s grave. Now we could go home.”

I’M LEARNING ALL THE TIME. HERE’S ONE THAT I DIDN’T know. In January 1945 Pvt. Richard Lockhart of the ill-fated 106th Division was a POW in Stalag IXB, Bad Orb, Germany. It was a smallish, primitive camp, housing several thousand Russian, Serbian, and French soldiers—all privates. There were no medical facilities, no sanitary services, no heat, and not much grass soup. When Lockhart and his fellow American POWs arrived, the guards held a roll call. They ordered all Jews to step forward. A dozen did. The guards separated them and sent them off to a slave-labor camp, over the vehement protests of Lockhart and others. Many of the Jewish POWs died. What prompted them to step forward? Lockhart wondered. He conjectured that it may have been an affirmation of their culture and religion, or it could have been out of naïveté, a sense that the U.S. Army uniform they were wearing would protect them.

I know one Jewish soldier who rightly feared capture, so when it was imminent, he switched dog tags with a dead buddy. It worked for him, but not for his folks, who got a telegram from the War Department telling them he had been killed in action.

My mentor, Dr. Harry T. Williams, taught me to let my characters speak for themselves. “They always say it better than you ever could,” he insisted. The paragraph that follows proves his point. It was written by Lt. Charles Jordan, 9th Division.

“I have read of fearless people, I even had a runner for a short time who I think was pretty close to fearless (he got killed), but I was not fearless. My worst fear was of screwing up or showing my fear to those around me. A distant second was fear of death. In my earliest days this included the fear of being wounded but this rapidly transformed into a desire. The absolute worst period of fear came as we were organizing for an attack. We never knew what to expect or when to expect it, and the longer the wait the greater the fear. The fear of death came openly when I was lying in a ditch, or a hole, or on the ground and artillery or mortar shells were exploding around me. There was absolutely nothing positive to do about these situations except lay there and pray. Since the days when I lived with fear constantly, I have found that fear for yourself cannot hold a candle to the fear engendered by the serious illness of your wife and children. I’d rather be shot at every day of the week and all day Sunday than face that situation.”