Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Longest Salute - Dispatches from Maine

Last week I was invited to present a lecture before the New Gloucester Historical Society to kick-off the fund-raising efforts for a new veterans monument to be located in Upper Gloucester village. I was honored to be asked to share these thoughts with my adopted hometown. What follows is the text of my remarks that evening in the town’s Meeting House.

What is the purpose of a veterans monument or memorial? I happen to live on the edge of our nation’s capital, a place that has its fair share of monuments and memorials to those Americans who served in the various branches of the armed forces, many of whom gave their last full measure of devotion to their country. There is the Vietnam War Memorial, that half buried black wedge etched with the names of thousands of men and women. Nearby, the Korean War Memorial with its larger-than life, cold steel combat patrol slogging toward the 38th Parallel and whatever fate awaited them. The long overdue memorial to those who served in World War II, that war to end all wars although we know, sadly, that this was not the case. Now that the last veteran of the Great War . . . World War I . . . has passed away, the nation is looking for a proper manner to recognize their wartime service. A bit too late? Some might think so. But not at all. It is never too late for that longest salute to all those who have served their country in times of war. And these monuments should not serve just as a memorial to those who died. We honor all those who served just as we celebrate all who returned home.

Spending the summer on the shores of Sabbathday Lake, right here in New Gloucester, I have read with great interest about the town’s efforts to properly recognize the almost 900 New Gloucester men and women veterans . . . going all the way back to the Revolutionary War, and right up to the present day . . . as well as the town’s long involvement in the military history of the United States. Since our visit last summer, the New Gloucester Historical Society, the Lunn- Hunnewell Amvets Post #6, and many other residents and business owners have expressed an interest in a Veterans Monument. With the very generous donation from Richard McCann and his family of land situated in Upper Gloucester village, the town now has an ideal location for an appropriate monument. I am pleased and honored to have been invited to speak here tonight to mark the kick-off to raise funds for the construction and long-term maintenance of the New Gloucester Veterans Monument.

It is important that each generation of citizens understands the sacrifices of the generations that came before. Those of us who have not experienced the dangers and deprivation of military service, whether it be in wartime or not, must try to better understand what others have endured in the defense of our nation.

Growing up I was always curious about my dad’s army service during World War II. I remember, as a kid, asking him. “Dad? What did you do during the war?” I imagine I was like many young boys my age when they first learned that their fathers had served in the military during World War II. My dad would occasionally share some of his war stories although I was perhaps too young to understand just what he was telling me, or just how painful these memories might have been for him. Sons look up to their fathers as heros. I did. That war was still fresh in many memories; it was not that many years earlier that Dad and his buddies, following the massive D-Day invasion, were slogging their way across northern France in late 1944, slowly pushing the Germans back to their own border. Dad never really went into many details about the war, or exactly what he did, but there were a few stories he shared, and I still remember them as clearly now as the day he first told them to me.

Perhaps the most vivid of these, the one that still stands out in my own recollections of my childhood, was Dad’s participation in the Battle of the Bulge, the Ardennes campaign, the greatest land battle ever fought by the military forces of the United States between December 16, 1944 and January 25, 1945. This great battle halted the final Nazi juggernaut to defeat the Allies and turned the tide of war against the Germans who would surrender just six months later.

I have been thinking of these stories more recently, especially after Dad passed away almost three years ago. Dad had served in General George Patton’s Third Army during the northern European campaign, in 1944-1945. Not long ago I visited my dad’s grave for the first time since his memorial service at the Florida National Cemetery. It was my first opportunity to see the inscription on the marble tablet marking the niche containing his ashes. It was then and there that I learned for the very first time, and much to my complete surprise, that Dad had received the Bronze Star, the fourth highest decoration awarded for distinguished, heroic or meritorious achievement or service in combat. He really was a hero even if not that many people, including his son, knew it.

A few days later my wife and I visited with one of the last surviving members of Dad’s unit. I first learned about Harry a few years ago when I was doing some online research on the Ardennes region of eastern Belgium and Luxembourg. I came across a photo essay on the area by a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge who had returned to visit the places he knew from the war. Many of the places and events he described seemed very similar to the ones my dad had told me about when I was a kid. I called Dad up and asked him whether he knew the guy who had posted the photos. “Why sure,” he said.” Harry was one of my closest buddies during the war.” They had not seen each other since the early days of 1945, in the immediate wake of the battle, and, as it turned out, they lived only a few miles apart in Florida. Dad gave Harry a call and over the next few months they renewed their old friendship. Harry and I also exchanged occasional notes and we planned to meet when my travels took me to Florida. I regret that I was not able to meet with Harry when Dad was still alive, but over lunch I told his old army buddy what I knew of Dad’s wartime exploits and Harry was able to fill me in on many more details. He answered a lot of questions I had about that chapter of my dad’s life.

I am sure my dad’s story is like those of many others who were called to serve their country in a time of war . . . like many of the almost 900 individuals whose names will eventually appear on the New Gloucester Veterans Monument. Dad was drafted into the US Army in early 1943, just a couple months shy of his 19th birthday. He left his native Michigan and did his basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where he was eventually assigned to the 104th Infantry Regiment of the 26th Infantry (Yankee) Division. This division was originally formed out of Massachusetts National Guard units for service in World War I as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force, and the division and regiment have had a long and distinguished history. In World War I, the 104th became the first US Army regiment to receive the fourragère of the French Croix de Guerre after showing “fortitude et courage” in repelling a German attack at Aprémont on April 10-13, 1918. These words have been the regiment’s motto ever since. Dad underwent training at Fort Jackson, and later at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and participated in maneuvers in Tennessee the winter of 1943/1944.

Departing Fort Jackson, in August 1944, upon completion of basic combat training, Dad and Harry and their unit were sent to the huge Camp Shanks - “Last Stop USA” - in New York’s Hudson Valley. It was time to go to war. Dad would serve until his discharge in early January 1946 and he and Harry and their buddies would grow up fast in those years of hardship not knowing if they would survive. A lot of the brave men who went to war never came home. Dad and Harry were lucky.

After Camp Shanks the 26th Infantry Division embarked from Fort Miles Standish, at Boston, in late August 1944, crossing the Atlantic directly to Cherbourg, France where it landed on September 7, 1944, some three months after D-Day. The division was first attached to III Corps, Ninth Army at the Valognes staging area where it underwent extensive combat training and was assigned to local security duties along the Cherbourg peninsula and the Normandy beachheads used on D-Day.

Following this training, the 26th Infantry Division was assigned in October 1944 to XII Corps in General George Patton’s Third Army which moved so quickly across northern France that it soon out distanced its supply line and had to slow down its advance. The 26th Division departed Normandy and caught up with Third Army in its operational area in the Lorraine region in northeastern France, the same area where the division and the 104th Regiment had served with distinction in World War I. There it took up a defensive position on Third Army’s right flank near Salonnes. It was here Dad and his 104th Infantry Regiment had their baptism under fire in an action against the German 11th Panzer Division in the Moncourt Woods, in late October 1944. This is where all the combat training paid off as these green American soldiers went up against a seasoned German division which had been in combat since 1940 and saw action in the Balkans and along the Eastern Front before it was sent to France in early 1944.

During that first week of November 1944, Third Army prepared to launch a large-scale offensive along the front near the German border. The first major offensive action by the 26th Infantry Division was against German positions in and around Vic-sur-Seille on November 8. The 104th Regiment advanced on the left flank toward Hampont and the Houbange Woods, and it captured Bennestroft two days later. The regiment proved it was up to the task assigned to it and it added a second regimental Croix de Guerre to its colors. 

The division continued to advance on the German border in late November with the 104th Regiment crossing the Canal du Rhin au Marne on December 1. A few days later the regiment reached the Maginot Line, a system of concrete fortifications constructed by the French near the border with Germany after World War I. There the regiment launched an attack against heavy German resistance as part of Third Army’s planned assault into Germany.

Following this assault, Dad’s regiment was transported to a rear area near Metz, in France, for some much needed R&R. But there was no rest for the weary. During the early morning hours of December 16, the Germans launched a surprise major counteroffensive through the Ardennes of Luxembourg and eastern Belgium in a last ditch effort to divide American and British forces advancing toward Germany. The Germans quickly advanced westward creating a large “bulge” in the Allied lines while never actually breaking out. Third Army was forced to suspend its offensive in the Saar Basin and reposition its forces in order to address this new German aggression. All units of Third Army were thrown against the southern shoulder of the German bulge into the Allied lines. The 26th Infantry Division, was transported from Metz to the vicinity of Arlon, in southeastern Belgium, in mid December 1944 where it launched an assault northward through western Luxembourg to help relieve American forces under siege at Bastogne, Belgium.

By December 23 the 104th was advancing through the hills and gorges of the Ardennes toward the Sûre (Saar) River and it met heavy Germany resistance throughout December 24 and on Christmas day as it continued to advance. There was intense combat on Christmas morning as the 104th moved up to Esch-sur-Sûre to establish important bridgeheads over the Sûre. The remainder of the division continued its northward advance in the closing days of 1944 in an effort to break the German siege of Bastogne. Dad and his unit remained in Esch-sur-Sûre for several day securing the bridgeheads and its regimental headquarters. It was here that Dad won his Bronze Star.

Heavy snow and German resistance stalled the American advance in early January 1945 and the 26th Division remained in northeastern Luxembourg and eastern Belgium for almost a month, until the German offensive had all but collapsed. By January 25, 1945 the German counteroffensive through the Ardennes was over and Third Army resumed its eastward advance from northern Luxembourg into Germany. Never able to enjoy their relief from front line action, the 26th Infantry Division had finally made it into Germany and it would not leave until the job it was given was completed.

By early March 1945 when it resumed the offensive, Third Army was already well on its way to the Rhine River and the heartland of Germany against scattered yet heavy enemy resistance. Once it crossed the Rhine in late March, resistance diminished and the division advanced quickly south of Frankfurt to the bridgeheads over the Main River east of that city. On April 15 the entire division was approximately 10 miles from the Czechoslovakian border in southeastern Germany where its advance was intentionally halted.

It was here that the war took on an entirely different meaning for Dad and his buddies. Perhaps they did not realize it at the time. One expects to encounter death and destruction when engaged in combat. But it was there, in the final weeks of the war, that death and the cruelties of war took on a different and more sinister dimension. The XII Corps of Third Army, including the 26th Infantry Division, was tasked with the pacification of eastern Bavaria, and it quickly advanced southward toward the Danube River and the Austro-German border near Passau. The division moved into Austria in early May and elements of the division took Linz on May 4. On the following day divisional units overran the Gusen concentration camp, part of the Mauthausen camp complex, east of Linz, and on May 6 it continued north into Czechoslovakia. Third Army had moved farther east than any other American unit in the European theater. This is a part of the war my dad never told me about. It was at Gusen that young American soldiers witnessed man’s inhumanity toward man up close and personal. Even years later, when I was spending my professional career investigating and prosecuting the perpetrators of Nazi war crimes and atrocities, my dad never told me about this part of the war. I wish he had, but I understand why he didn’t.

Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 7 and hostilities officially ended on May 9. The following day elements of the 26th Infantry Division made contact with advanced units of the Soviet Red Army in the vicinity of Ceske-Budejovice, Czechoslovakia. Since the autumn of 1944 the 26th Infantry Division had been in combat for 210 days; the 104th for 177 days. But the war was not over; the 26th and the 104th returned to the area around Linz to train for eventual deployment in the Pacific. Luckily the war ended there before they had to go and finish the work begun in the forest and hills of northeastern France almost a year earlier.

When I was attending university in Germany in 1971-1972 I had an opportunity to visit many of the places where the Yankee Division and the 104th Infantry regiment had served with distinction. During the war Dad had plotted the movements of his unit on various maps he had found along the way. He had also kept a small journal in his boot and I had all of these with me during my time in Europe. One of my German friends took a great interest in what I was doing and I told him the stories my dad had shared with me as a kid about his wartime service in Patton’s Third Army. It was then that Johannes told me that his own father had served in the 11th Panzer Division, the elite German unit my dad’s regiment first faced off against in northeastern France. We talked and it turned out the stories his father told him were very familiar to the ones I had heard as a boy. Twenty-five years earlier two young men . . . boys actually . . . one American, the other German, stared down the length of their rifles at each other. Years later their son had become friends. I met Johannes’ father. I’m pretty sure he and Dad could have been friends in another time and place.

I spent quite a bit of time in the area of northeastern France, visited the Moncourt Woods where Dad first saw combat, and then traveled throughout the Ardennes looking for the various places Dad had told me about. Recalling some of the more vivid stories about his time in Esch-sur-Sûre, I visited the town several times. On one visit I managed to identify the house in the rue de l’eglise where Dad and his buddies had bunked during that snowy Yuletide back in 1944. I knocked on the door to discover that the family to whom the house belonged during the war, still lived there and they gave me a tour and invited me to stay for coffee and cake. Later that evening I had dinner at the Hotel Ardennes, which had served as the regimental headquarters during the late stage of the Ardennes offensive. When I told the waiter why I was there, he brought me a bottle of wine and my entire dinner was on the house. The American liberators were still looked upon as heros. And so were their sons, apparently. I can’t think of a time I was prouder to be an American. Or for what my dad and his buddies had done years ago.

So it was a real treat to finally meet Harry only wishing that Dad had lived long enough to share that day with us. While Dad never really involved himself in veteran affairs and unit reunions after the war, Harry jumped in with both feet and even today, at age 89, he works hard to make sure younger generations never forget what he and Dad and so many like them did to preserve our way of life in this country. We remember and salute them all.

So why have I told you all of this? In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act 2, Scene I, we are told that “what is past is prologue.” We learn from the past. Time is long and therefore memories must be long to recall what has come before and its importance to what happens now and in the future. Just as it is important to remember the stories my dad told me about the war, and those that I learned about after he had passed away, it is important that all of us remember the stories we have been told. The names that will appear on the New Gloucester Veterans Monument will be fresh in the memories of some. Others less so, and some have been long forgotten. But not any more. Their names will now be engraved for present and future generations to see and reflect on. What happened to these people in times of war? We might not recall the details of their particular service. What they saw. What they did. But we should never forget their names. Never. The new Veterans Monument will stand as the longest salute to these honored men and women. Recall the words of Abraham Lincoln:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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