Friday, February 9, 2018

Corporal Harry E. Kirby - A Brother in Arms

I wrote briefly about my father’s wartime service shortly after his death, in October 2009. He had served in the104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry (Yankee) Division in General George Patton’s Third Army during the northern European campaign, in 1944-1945.

In the spring of 2011, I visited his grave at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell for the first time since his memorial service there the previous spring. 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 first time, and much to my complete surprise, that my father 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 many people 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 Kirby a few years before 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 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 

Ralph C. Rogers (1924-2009) & Harry E. Kirby (1924-2017)
Florida 2008
occasional notes and we planned to meet one day when my travels took me again to Florida. I regret that I was not able to meet with Harry while Dad was still alive, but over our lunch with Harry and his wife Jean in their lovely home near Ocala, I told Harry what I knew of Dad’s wartime exploits and he 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, including how and under what circumstances he received the Bronze Star. It turns out he and Dad were together during the days leading up to and during the Battle of the Bulge. Harry won the Bronze Star the same time as Dad.

The above sketch of then Private First Class Harry Kirby was made at Esch-sur-Süre, Luxembourg in December 1945, at the height of the American counter-offensive during the Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle ever conducted by the US Army. Harry and my father were pinned down there at Christmas, and Dad told many stories about this. Harry provided more details about the battle, and his subsequent visits to the area after the war, and he was tickled to learn that I had also visited the area, including Esch-sur-Sûre during Christmas 1971, when I was a university student in Germany, and had searched out many of the landmarks Dad had told me about.

I would have more questions and Harry and I continued to exchange notes; not only about the war and his friendship with Dad, but also about his growing up in Maryland and his years sailing the Chesapeake Bay. We both studied at the University of Maryland and he also shared several memories of life on campus. Having resided in Maryland for over 40 years, I was always interested to receive his stories and anecdotes. I also enjoyed other stories about his postwar years that took him to Chicago, my hometown, and his career with Sears. He laughed when I told him Dad retired from JC Penney’s corporate headquarters. They fought together, and Harry was willing to forgive this one lapse in judgement on my Dad’s part. And I always wished Harry a Happy Birthday on February 3. I was getting ready to do so again this year - he would turn 94 - when I learned that Harry passed away last summer, on July 29. As he was the last surviving member of my Dad’s immediate wartime unit, and the only one I was lucky enough to meet, I think it only proper that I pay tribute to his service and his memory.

Harry Elmer Kirby was born February 3, 1924 in Baltimore, Maryland. Prior to the war he studied at the Baltimore Business College, the University of Maryland, and after entering military service, at the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), at the University of Maine (where he first met my father). The ASTP was designed to single out specially qualified soldiers for their exceptional IQs and send them to various college campuses around the United States to learn special war skills. Some were also enrolled in Officers Candidate School (OCS) to be trained for a specialized officers corps to serve as Army engineers as the war expanded in the European Theater. The war had not yet begun in earnest for these young men, but they all knew their time would come. They were "soldiers first, students second." Unfortunately, it would not last.

In February 1944, many of the soldiers enrolled in the basic part of the program, including my father and Harry, were called to active combat duty. Casualties were mounting rapidly in Europe and they did not realize the Sword of Valor on their ASTP shoulder patch would come so quickly. The Army decided its need for infantry replacements was more pressing than the need for technical specialties. My father and Harry traveled by train to Tennessee to join the 104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry "Yankee" Division, in the US Second Army’s spring maneuvers. They were needed to bring the division up to strength before it was shipped to France in the wake of the D-Day invasion where it would join the US Third Army under General George Patton. Originally consisting of personnel from the Massachusetts National Guard, the division was no longer the special pride of New England as its ranks swelled with men from all over the United States. The ASTP soldiers would serve in the front ranks as combat infantry riflemen and knew from the beginning that their future looked grim. Many who went would never come home again.

Harry and Dad served their country proudly in France,
Ralph Rogers (far left) and Harry Kirby (second from right with pipe)
Northern France 1944
Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany and both were awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantry Badge, Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and the American Campaign and European Theater Ribbons with three Battle Stars – Northern France, the Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge) and the Rhineland – as well as the Croix de Guerre awarded by the Government of France. And thankfully, they were both able to return to their families and to build new ones of their own.

After the war, Harry continued his studies at the Baltimore College of Commerce for three years. He worked in the tire and rubber industry, first with Firestone in Baltimore, and then at Sears' Chicago headquarters as an Assistant National Sales Manager, and later as National Marketing Manager for commercial tires and batteries, a position he held until his retirement. He then accepted a position
as Vice President for Sales and Marketing at TTS Corporation, in Chelsea, Massachusetts before establishing his own consulting business in North Carolina. He finally retired to Ocala, Florida.

Harry and his wife Jean made five trips back to Europe after the war, especially to Luxembourg to visit memorials to Americans who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, including the Hamm Military Cemetery where many from his and Dad’s 26th Infantry Division are buried. Harry was a member of the Yankee Division Association, the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the American Legion. He frequently spoke at local schools and to other groups about this wartime service.

Harry is survived by his wife of 72 years, five children, six grandchildren, and two great granddaughters. He was buried at the Florida National Cemetery with full military honors on August 15, 2017. I visited Dad and Harry a few days ago. Brothers in arms during World War II, Florida retirees in later life, they rest together in this sacred and hallowed ground. They have joined their other buddies from their unit. They are all gone now. Gone, but never forgotten. They all traveled many miles in peril and in peace. They sacrificed for the living and the yet unborn. This was the promise they were sworn to keep. Now they rest in peace and deserve their sleep.

No comments:

Post a Comment