It’s Memorial Day. The first one since my return from Europe touring the WWII Battlefields of The Battle of the Bulge. I find myself to be emotional and sad. Not my normal reaction to a 3-day weekend and a day off with pay.
My father, just a few months past his 19th birthday, was placed on the front line just in time for the start of the fight. Let that sink in. Nearly everyone in Company G – was about the same age. Few were over 25. Not quite children anymore, but definitely not adults. Boys, really.
A member of his Company, a young 19 year old named Donald Schultz, was clutching his rifle and looking out across a snowy field for the advancing German army when he was killed by a direct mortar hit on his foxhole on 12/16/1944 in the early hours of the battle.
Late at night, a few days later on 12/18/1944, my father and the rest of Company G was pulled off the front just ahead of the advancing German Army. Dad’s squad was the last to leave. Ordered to leave behind his mortar, Dad took Donald’s rifle from his cold and frozen body as they left his remains behind. We believe Dad carried Donald’s rifle for the next 6 plus days – during which he was separated from his Battalion and Company wandering around the Ardennes Forest with several other GI’s. Dad said he had the only working rifle. We now know he had to kill several German Soldiers with Donald’s rifle.
During those 6 scary days, Dad thought of Donald’s rifle as “his ticket home”. He held onto it no matter what – earning him the nickname “M1″. As strange as it is, it was Donald’s death, and the availability of his rifle, that ensured Dad and his buddies would get back to the US battle lines on the night of 12/23/1944. All of them made it – a feat that merited a salute from all the members of the Tank Company that picked them up when they stumbled out of the forest as the Allies escaped through Vielselm from the “Fortified Goose Egg”.
In Basic Training the boys of the 106th Infantry Division 424th Regiment had been toughened up, trained, and given a job to do. “Over There” in deep wet snow, freezing cold; without food, coats, boots, or sleep, the boys of the 424th did the job they were asked to do. The Army asked too much of those boys. But they did what was asked of them. Despite initial los of ground to the advancing German Army, they broke Hitler’s last hope. Seven Hundred Thirty-eight of them died in the attempt (killed in action, died of wounds or died in captivity).
Think about that.738. Seven Hundred Thirty-eight boys that never came home, never met the woman they’d marry, that never had children. Whose loss scarred 1,476 parents, and countless siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. 738 boys who never got their whole life to live. And that’s only one Regiment. It’s tragic, really.
It’s the tragedy of so many lives lost; the rows upon rows of headstones of all the boys that weren’t brought home to be buried here, and the rows and rows of headstones in our own National Cemeteries, and the rows and rows of the dead repatriated back to the USA and buried in family plots. So many died. An honorable cause, admittedly, rescuing Europe from Hitler’s power mad fascism. But still; so many died. The US alone had 418,000 casualties. Almost half a million. In one War. …and we got there late! England – small country that it is – had 383,600 soldiers killed. A generation of boys all over the world was nearly wiped out.
What I saw in Europe may have changed Memorial Day for me forever. It’s not barbecues, and parades, and marching bands in Belgium. It’s a day of gratitude for the Allied liberators. It’s a day of remembrance and thanksgiving that Hitler and his Third Reich were stopped once and for all. A day of sorrow for the dead no matter the side they fought for.
Since my travels through the battlefields; Memorial Day will now be a day I’m forever grateful that my father was one of the lucky ones who came home. And the day I grieve for those that didn’t – especially Donald Schultz.