Monday, May 29, 2006

American heroes

Barely out of his teens, my father was suddenly bound for basic training in Texas. Camp Berkeley, which is located outside of Abilene, was the destination and he spent the following months with his fellow soldiers training for war.

On a September night in 1944, the troops were loaded up in trains bound for New York, where they would be shipped to Europe. Over the next five months, his division tore across France, Germany, and Austria, beginning at the Maginot Line on December 5, 1944, and continuing without a break until the end of the war. Their toughest battle was at Herrilsheim, France, where the division was ambushed by the Nazis and lost over 6,000 men. Despite the tragic losses that reduced their numbers to under 4,000 members, they stopped the Nazis’ repeated attempts to break out of their stronghold at Gambsheim to head toward Strasbourg. It was at this point that the Germans began calling them “The Suicide Division,” and they became one of the most feared divisions on the Western Front.

They weren’t the “Suicide Division”, though. They were the 12th Armored Division, later nicknamed “The Mystery Division” as they came under the leadership of Patton who removed all insignia from their uniforms to keep the enemy from identifying them. And they might have been missing their insignia, but they weren’t missing their spirit.

After Herrilsheim, the 12th was loaned to the First French Army along with other U.S. Army divisions to help them succeed in eliminating the Germans’ last foothold in France – and this was the only time during World War II that U.S. forces fought under the command of a foreign country. The following month, the 12th added three infantry companies of African-American soldiers, which was a rarity at the time (most African-American troops at that time performed manual labor and did not participate in combat).

Later on, the 12th crossed into Germany to capture the only intact bridge across the Danube which allowed Allied armor into southern Germany. On April 28, 1945, they captured Landsburg, Germany and freed 2,800 Allied prisoners; however, it was the next five days that would leave most of them with memories that would haunt them for a lifetime.

They freed eleven Nazi concentration camps in five days. The images have remained burned in their memories. Most can’t even bear to talk about it.

By May 1945, the 12th had moved through Germany into Austria and then back into Bavaria, where they hunted down Nazis charged with war crimes.

My father has never talked much about his experiences during the war. It wasn’t until October of 2001 that I realized the part the 12th had played in the war, and also how much it must have deeply affected him. I was very pregnant at the time, it was only a month after 9/11, and I flew to Abilene with the rest of our family for the opening of the 12th Armored Division Museum. As I walked through the museum, I came to a heavy, crudely-made wooden door with a warning sign on it that sensitive material was located behind the door. I went inside, and was swept up by emotion as I entered a recreation of a concentration camp. Pictures on the walls of the suffering of the prisoners. An emaciated mannequin lying on a hard wooden bunk. Jars with pieces of the brown bread that was given to the prisoners.

I walked back out of the door and saw my father standing there, misty-eyed. He couldn’t go in.

Even after the war, my father remained in the military until the early 1960’s, serving in the Korean War and even after retirement from the Army he went to work for the Department of Defense and went to Vietnam seven times during the war. When the Gulf War broke out, you could tell that it was just killing him that he wasn’t on a military transport to join his fellow soldiers on the battlefields. I asked him one time why he stayed in the military so many years and his answer was, “Because I love my country.”

You know, I’m one of the lucky ones. My father came home. But there were so many that didn’t come home at all, and so many that came home in coffins. So many that have given up their families, their jobs, and even their lives to serve our country. And at a time when our country is divided over our involvement over in Iraq, it’s even more important than ever for us to take a moment today and recognize these selfless people who have given all of themselves.

To the soldiers serving today, to the soldiers who have served in the past, and to the soldiers who never came home – thank you. You are truly our American heroes.

Note: All background material on the 12th Armored Division used in this blog came from Sidney Schuhmann's article “To Hell & Back” that was published in the Abilene Reporter-News on September 30, 2001.

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