THE GREATEST GENERATION: MY FATHER'S JOURNEY THROUGH WORLD WAR TWO
By Mark Wilson
With each passing day, America looses a thousand members of the generation that fought and won World War II. That sad fact does not begin to convey the impact that the death of a single member of that "greatest generation" has, when it is someone from your own family.
My father, Donald "Drew" Wilson, was a World War II veteran, and a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge. He died on January 5th., 2006, of a stroke due to diabetes at the age of 80. He was not a decorated war hero. But he did his part, like millions of other GIs in his generation, to defeat fascism in order to give his children a better world. That fact made him a hero in my eyes. Some of my fondest memories of him are the times that he would gather me and my three younger brothers together, and tell us stories about his experiences in Europe during World War II. So now in his honor, here is a brief account of his journey through that war, from adolescence to manhood.
March 1941 - Boot Camp
When Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, my father was only 16 years old. He graduated from high school in Columbus, Ohio one semester early, and attended Ohio State University for a semester in 1943. After he turned 18 on March 4th. of that year, he signed up for the United States Army, and went to boot camp in Georgia in the summer of 1943. After basic training, he joined the Army Corps of Engineers, and was sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey for special training. His regiment was the 398th, and their marching song began "We're the 398th. Engineers, Marching along without fears!".
New Year's Day, 1944 - Leaving New York heading for England
His regiment was assigned to a troop ship that was due to leave New York Harbor for England on New Year's Day, 1944. So, my father spent that New Year's Eve in Times Square, along with tens of thousands of other GI's who were about to ship out for the "European Theater". During his leave in New York City, he saw a Nat King Cole concert, and remembers the great singer paying a tribute to the "men in uniform" in the audience.
My father's troop ship arrived in Liverpool in January of 1944. He recalled fondly that when his regiment was marched through the streets of Liverpool on their way to take transports to their base, dozens of rosy-cheeked little English boys and girls tagged along beside them asking "Got any gum, chum?" Some of the men shared their sticks of gum, or pieces of chocolate from their K-rations.
My father was eventually stationed in the picturesque English town of Taunton, where his regiment spent the next several months practicing building pontoon bridges for the coming D-Day invasion. It was dangerous work, especially at night during the heavy winter rains. At least one man in his company died by being crushed to death during one of these exercises.
D-Day Invasion, Normandy, France
Several days after D-Day, my father's regiment landed at one of the beachheads and proceeded towards the crucial port of Cherbourg, in Normandy. There were still a few pockets of Germans holding out in the city, but the Allies needed the port to land more men and equipment in order to continue their drive inland. My father recalled how the port was in total ruins when they got there, due to German sabotage. His regiment, along with many others, spent the next several weeks clearing out debris and rebuilding the port facilities. Every now and then, they could hear the sound of mines of other booby traps left by the Germans, exploding somewhere in the harbor.
August 1944 - Liberation of Paris, France
In late August of 1944, just after the liberation of Paris by the Allies, my father's company was given a 48-hour pass to visit the city. He described how beautiful it was to him, even though many of the electric lights were still not working, and there were only military vehicles in the streets. Most of the Parisians rode around on bicycles, and were happy to see the "American GI's" that were flooding into their city. They were especially appreciative of those few Americans, like my father, who made some attempt to speak a little French when they asked the natives for directions.
Fall 1944 - Central & Eastern France
In the Fall of 1944, my father's outfit was assigned to do guard duty at a temporary stockade that had been set up in central France, for German prisoners of war who had been captured in the drive towards Paris after D-Day. One night, my father struck up a friendly conversation with one of the prisoners who spoke English. He was from Hamburg, and he described the attractions of his home town wistfully. But when he complained about how "the damned Allied bombers destroyed my city" my father took exception. "Look, I saw what your air force did to Coventry, England," my father retorted. "Those buildings were totally defenseless civilian targets. Your bombers even obliterated the children's hospital. So whatever destruction has befallen German cities, you guys brought it on yourselves."
One day in the early Fall of 1944, my father's regiment was marching along a rural road in eastern France, when they suddenly heard the droning of a German aircraft's engines. "Strafe! Take cover!" the officers shouted. A few seconds later, my father was lying in a ditch at the side of the road, expecting at any moment to hear the rat-a-tat of machine gun fire and the zipping of bullets as they hit the ground. But after several seconds, nothing had happened. So, my father decided to raise his head up, and take a look at the oncoming German plane. It was a Messerschmitt, and my father got a good luck at the pilot's face. It was contorted with fear, as he struggled with the controls. The plane was clearly running out of gas, since the engine had begun sputtering, and the pilot was trying desperately to land the aircraft safely. It flew low over the hills on the horizon without firing a shot. My father felt an immediate sense of empathy for the plight of that enemy pilot, and his regiment never found out what happened to him afterwards.
By the late Fall of 1944, there was talk among the GIs on the Western Front in France and Belgium that they might be in Berlin by Christmas. But on December 16th., 1944, thirty crack German divisions suddenly attacked the American front lines in the Ardennes Forest, and punched a hole through them. The German panzer and infantry units caught the Americans by surprise, and pushed them back over 100 miles in what came to be called The Battle of the Bulge. It was the deadliest battle in the history of the United States military, costing over 100,000 American casualties.
Winter 1944 - Ordered to the font lines in Luxembourg
My father's outfit was ordered to rush to the front lines in Luxembourg, and help hold back the Germans as long as they could, to give General Patton's tanks time to arrive from the south and relieve the encircled American garrison at Bastogne, Belgium. The men in the 398th. were in such short supply of rifles that my father remembers some of them being issued oissued old bolt action Springfield rifles from WWI, which they had to be given special training to use properly.
When they got to the front, the 398th. was told to dig foxholes in the frozen earth on some heights overlooking a river valley, with a clear view of Germany beyond. In this part of Luxembourg, the German forces were trying to soften up the American front lines with intermittent bombardment from their heavy artillery. They used their most potent weapon, the 88 millimeter canon, which could lob a shell 15 or 20 miles, and create a crater large enough to wipe out a squad of a dozen men at once. My father spent the next six weeks "hunkered down" in a foxhole in the bitter cold, listening to the ominous thud of German"88" shells landing a hundred or so yards away, wondering if they would ever score a direct hit on his squad. At night, various squads in my father's company took turns going out on patrol to try and intercept small groups of German footsoldiers, who sometimes slipped through the American lines by speaking perfect English."
January 1944 - Pulled off the front lines
At the end of January, 1945, my father's regiment was finally pulled off the front lines, and he was sent to a field hospital with a severe case of pneumonia and a moderate case of frost bite. He spent a few weeks recovering, and he liked to joke that this was as close as he ever came to receiving a purple heart for being wounded under fire.
May 1945 - War end in Europe VE Day
When the war in Europe ended on VE day, May 8, 1945, my father's regiment was told they would soon get a thirty day leave to visit their families back in the United States. But they were told "not to get too comfortable", because after that they would be shipping out to the Pacific Theater to take part in the Allied Invasion of Japan. In July of 1945, my father crossed the Atlantic Ocean on the Queen Mary, sleeping out on the open deck for three weeks with 15,000 other GIs. He spent most of July and early August at his parent's house in Columbus, waiting for his orders to ship out again.
August 1945 - Word War II finally over, Japan surrenders after two atomic bomb attacks
Then on August 6, 1945, my father heard over the radio that a new weapon, an atomic bomb, had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, all but wiping out that city. The Japanese refused to surrender at first, but after a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9th., they sued for peace on August 14, 1945, and World War II was finally over. President Truman's now controversial decision to use the atom bomb had not only very likely saved my father's life and that of hundreds of thousands of other American GIs, but also an estimated one million Japanese soldiers and civilians who would have died in an Allied invasion. Thus ended my father's journey through World War II, and his passage from adolescence to manhood.