November 11, 2007

I share this personal World War II experience in response to an invitation to do so by Ken Burns creator of The War on PBS.

On this 2007 Veterans’ Day I want to salute my two closest comrades in World War II, Bill Irwin and Dwight Holmes. They were my fellow soldiers who did not survive the horror of combat. Both were killed in Germany in 1945.

Bill and Dwight have lived in my nightly prayers for more than six decades. The three of us first met in a special service section of the Army called the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). It was designed to take college students in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) to be trained as engineers, chemical warfare specialists and other skills critical to the progress of the war. We were assigned to basic training at Ft. McClelland in Anniston, Alabama and later sent to Alabama Polytechnic Institute now Auburn University to study combat engineering. As the need for these specialties arose and our training warranted, we were to be commissioned second lieutenants and assigned to special units.

Our wartime leaders were confident in 1944 that the war would soon be over and that ASTP was no longer needed. There was, however, a great shortage of combat infantry replacements. We were sent to the newly created 106th Infantry Division at Camp Atterbury in Franklin, Indiana. (The division was destroyed and decommissioned later in the Battle of the Bulge.) There was an announcement that they would accept volunteers to go overseas to combat and we three accepted.

We were sent to Fort Meade in Maryland near Baltimore. All three of us visited Dwight’s family in Baltimore. It was an occasion to celebrate Dwight’s birthday and his gift was a brand-new wallet. He gave me his old one. I had this wallet through the rest of my military service and carried it in civilian life as my sole war souvenir.

We three had a weekend pass to New York City and I went into St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. In that magnificent, almost empty church I prayed for the three of us. My main prayer was for myself that I would serve with honor. For reasons of military secrecy we were not told our destination. However, while in New York we met three girls. They told us we were going to be sailing to England on the Queen Elizabeth leaving on Thursday. They were right. We did sail for England on Thursday on the Queen Elizabeth the largest ship in the world. (So much for military secrecy!)

Crossing on the Queen Elizabeth is a long story in itself. There were 15,000 soldiers on board. We were escorted by destroyers out of New York Harbor and had destroyers as we approached our destination the harbor of Greenock, Scotland. For the four and a half day voyage over we were not escorted and had a constant pattern of zigzagging to avoid German submarines.

We were sent to training at the infantry replacement center called a “Repo Depo” at Litchfield, England to be assigned to a combat unit. After several weeks each of our names suddenly appeared on three separate postings. Dwight and I were posted to separate units of the “Big Red One” First Infantry. Bill was dispatched to the 28th Infantry Division. We three never again met in this life.

I was, however, with Bill one more time. After the war his mother asked that Bill’s remains be returned to his home in Shelby, Ohio. I attended the ceremony and in one of the most emotional moments in my life had the honor of presenting the American flag to Mrs. Irwin.

Almost all the writing about war is from or by generals and admirals. Until recently there was very little about common soldiers and what we did or thought. We were not allowed to keep diaries or even tell where we were. My experience is that the memory of the brutality of infantry combat is tightly packed deep inside me. Only rarely does it come to my consciousness and never have I written about it. As the only survivor of the three of us I have tried through thought and prayer to share my life with Bill and Dwight. I am happy to publicly salute these two men whom I will always love.

I invite a dialogue pro and con and welcome your ideas.

Bernie Hillenbrand
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