It has been 69 years since last I saw the faces of fellow WWII soldiers Bill Erwin, Dwight Holmes and Harry Kolasa. Although they are deceased they are often in my thoughts and prayers particularly on Memorial Day. Bill and Dwight and I went into the Army from various college Reserved Officers Training Corps (ROTC) programs and were assigned to the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). We came together when that program was suddenly ended and participants in mass were assigned to the 106h Golden Lion Infantry Division at Camp Atterberry in Franklin Indiana.

We were sick of constant training and we three who had bonded as brothers volunteered for combat. We were set to Maryland’s Fort Mc McClellan near Dwight’s home in Baltimore. After a birthday party for Dwight at his home and a night in New York City we sailed on the Queen Elizabeth to the Firth of Clyde in Great Britain. We three were still together and assigned to a replacement Depot at Salisbury England.

During the war for security reasons we were not allowed to keep a diary or any written record so dates are guesses. It was after D Day at about the time of the Allied breakout from Normandy. With no warning and only a hasty goodbye we were suddenly separated and assigned as Riflemen Infantry replacements. Dwight and I were assigned to different regiments of the Big Red One First Infantry Division and Bill was posted to another Infantry Division.

I sailed from Plymouth England on a troop ship the former Belgian passenger the Leopoldville which on the following Christmas Eve was sunk by a German Submarine with the loss of several hundred soldiers. As we approached Omaha Beach we were met by small Boats called Landing Craft Infantry. (LCI) and ordered down the Leopoldville’s side on rope ladders. We were in combat gear with gas masks and back packs. The soldier above me was impatient and his boot kept hitting my helmet. I saw the shoulder bars of the Second Lieutenant below me who was descending very cautiously. Suddenly a giant well raised the LCI several feet and crashed it against the ship side rope ladder. It crushed the Lieutenant to death and splattering me with his blood as he sunk into the sea. The LCI feel back deep in the water and started to rise again. In an instant I had to decide try to escape up the ladder or try to dive head first into the small boat. Timing was everything. It was the greatest leap of my life. With luck I landed head first just inches inside the craft just as it hit the ship’s side a second time. As we quickly separated from the Leopoldville my prayers were a thank you for being alive and for the Lieutenant. To add my war experience the LCI Sailor dropped anchor far short of Omaha Beach and dumped we survivors in water up to our waists. We spent our first night in a combats zone soaking wet from sea water and pouring rain in two- man tents in a flooded field at St Mere Eglise.
After a truck ride across France I joined the Company G of the 18th Regiment near Namure Belgium. My first action was in the attack on Aachen a proud German City famous as Charlemagne’s Capital. It was a and part of the heavily fortified German Siegfried Line. Our 16th Regiment attract to the north, our 26th regiment attack the center and my 18th the other side. .My Company captured Crucifix Hill and gained control of the major highway into the city.
After the capture of Aachen we attack the Hurtgen Forest. This was the longest continuous and bloodiest American military action in history. . It was here that I met Harry Kolas who I knew not as a close friend but as the company runner. On November 23 1944 while alone on a road block armed with a rife launch anti-tank gun I was blown unconscious into the snow by what apparently what was a small German mortar round. When I regained consciousness I realized I was hit in several places and my left hand was unrecognizable. I was in a huge pool of blood. We were under almost constant Artillery bombardment just as a new replace officer appeared. He pointed in the direction of an aid station and asked if I could make it alone. I said yes and started up along a tiny forest road under barrage from very heavy Artillery fire. There was a rather deep depression in the snow and I dove in face first. I looked up to see Harry Kolas jump in on top of me. A huge artillery shill hit the tree above and the down ward blast stunned me but killed Harry instantly. One piece of shrapnel took a chunk out of my right shoulder. But I was able to make it to an American tank column and the bottom of a blown out barn that was the aid station. It was jammed with wounded half American and half German.
My war I was over and I was off to 18 months of rehabilitation hospitals. I learned that Bill and Dwight had been killed. I did meet Bill Irwin again in Shelby Ohio when his remains where returned to his home town. I participated in his internment ceremony with my mother who had become close friends with Bill’s mother.

Memorial days typically deal with numbers like these: In WWII 112,000,000 served in the armed forces of the United States. Some 405,399 died in battle or other causes and 670,846 were wounded. By latest count only 1,462,809 of us survive at the median age of 92 years. My memorial Days are filled with the human faces that I have mentioned but also my comrades of the Golden Lion 106th Infantry which in two days suffered 8,700 casualties in the Battle of the Bulge and was disbanded.. There is a selfish reason for sharing these names of precious comrades. My belief s that if I had been killed that on Memorial Day Bill or Dwight would remember me in print as I remember them by name.

Rev. Bernard F. Hillenbrand

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