It is unfortunate that many holidays in America have become all about candy, gifts, parties, and vacations with little thought given to the real intention for the day. Especially for a day like Memorial Day which was first celebrated as Decoration Day after the Civil War to decorate the graves and honor all of those who had given their lives in war. To honor its origin, shouldn’t this be a solemn day when we remember all the brave young men and women who fell in faraway places like the Belleau Wood, the Beaches of Normandy, on the Sands of Iwo Jima, on Pork Chop Hill, Hamburger Hill, in the streets of Fallujah, or in the valleys of Afghanistan? Memorial Day is personal for many of us. Who do you remember on Memorial Day? Our family usually honored this day with a family get together and often a trip to the cemetery. My great grandmother’s WWII service flag had 6 blue stars and one gold. The family’s latest sacrifice came in the Ardennes Forest near the end of World War II.
My grandfather, by all accounts was just another young man from a small town in Middle America. He was the second son of 11 children, and was 22 years old when he married on October 1, 1932. Even in the Great Depression, they believed in the future and over the next 5 years started a family with two daughters and one son. He was elected to be County Treasurer in 1936, and my grandmother went to work in the office with him for no pay. He served two terms as Treasurer and was elected to County Clerk in 1940 and reelected for a second term in 1942. At only 32 years of age with 4 elections under his belt, some would say he was a rising political star looking at a bright political future. He was finishing his second term as clerk when he was drafted into the armed services in April of 1944.
Like many young men of the time, he was sent through basic training and then made stops at Fort George in Maryland and Camp Atterbury in Indiana. As history proved, he had an unlucky draw and was assigned to the Weapons Platoon, Company G, 423rd Regiment of the 106th Infantry Division. The 106th made its way to the Ardennes Forest near St. Vith, Belgium. The fighting that would ensue became one of the great strategic allied successes of the war, but success only came after days of bitter and costly battles.
The 106th was not battle tested and had been in Europe for only a short while when they found themselves on the front lines of the Nazi’s first attack in the Battle of the Bulge. Not only was it their first time on the front lines, they were also spread in a long line covering more territory. Have you ever been in the forest after a new snow? It’s one of the most quiet and peaceful places I have ever been. The Ardennes were cold and snow covered but whatever peace they may have found in the snow covered forest was not to last. On December 15th just 4 days after the 106th had moved to the front, they observed increased activity from the German positions. With a massive German army surprise attack the war quickly began for the 106th on December 16th, 1944.
The battle was men against artillery and tanks. The artillery barrage slowly crept along the division front. Treetops snapped like toothpicks under the relentless bursts of artillery shells while the troops dug into their foxholes waiting for the attack that was soon to follow. The dark of night was illuminated with the flash of thunderous explosives and turned into a terrifying hell by the screeching yell from the onslaught of German “Screaming Meemies”. The attack came in waves lead by the panzer tank units that smashed against the lines of the 106th division. It was one of the Germans’ last great gasps of the war, and they were desperate for a decisive breakthrough of the allied lines.
By all accounts the 106th stood their ground and fought. The first wave was stopped. And a second wave followed and again the 106th held. It was the second wave that came relentlessly at my grandfather’s unit the 423rd. The 422nd and 423rd became surround and cut off from the other units, and most importantly from supply lines. A heavy fog had settled over the frozen and snow covered hillsides and made it impossible to fly in supplies. The two units regrouped and organized a counter attack attempting to breaking out of their position early on December 18th. Their bold but desperate move was blocked by the sheer size and number of the German forces. It was their heroism that caused the German army to bring a greater concentration of power against these two units. Many fought to their death, and all fought until there was no more ammunition to shoot at the enemy. The 422nd and 423rd bought precious time for the rest of the 106th division which was able to regroup and prepare to defend St. Vith. The efforts of the 422nd and 423rd may have stalled the German advance just enough to have denied Hitler’s army from securing the explosive victory that they sought in the Battle of the Bulge. It is said that in one of the bloodiest battles of the war, the 106th showed the Germans and the world how American soldiers could fight…and die.
Meanwhile back at home, it was the Christmas Season and life went on as normal as it could for a mother and 3 young children with their father far away at war. It wasn’t until mid-January that my grandmother received a telegram with notification that her husband was missing in action somewhere in Germany. From the pages of my mother’s small leather bound diary January 13, 1945, “We got bad news about daddy. He is missing in action in Germany. It is awful.” I tear up every time that I read that line because I can only imagine what it would be like for a 9 year old to get that news. From a memoir written by my grandmother, she said, “I spent a terrible eight months of being in suspense, but in August of the same year, another telegram came telling us that he was found dead. I felt the whole world sinking under me because the children were the young age of six, eight, and ten years.” Another entry from my mother’s diary, August 18, 1945, “We got a very bad message about daddy today saying that daddy was killed in Germany on December 18, 1944.” It was long after that before he was returned home and they had his funeral.
This is the story of just one of the more than 1,350,000 soldiers killed in war, one of many that we pause to remember on Memorial Day. They were all more than a name on a stone at the cemetery or one of the names engraved on the statue in the front lawn of the county courthouse. They all had families whose lives were forever changed by the unfortunate but necessary and continuing battle for peace and freedom. The American Hero in this story was a son, a brother, a husband, and a father. He was my mother’s broken heart, and the grandfather I never knew. May peace be with all of you on this Memorial Day.