Lines of time set deep into the faces of 15 World War II veterans as they gathered in Boston to make the journey back to the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne Belgium. Despite not moving as quickly as they once did when they fought and liberated a country from Hitler’s German Army, there was a light that shone in their eyes with an eagerness to walk the battlefields for what was most likely, the last time of their lives. The youngest of the group 94 years old – the oldest 97.
It was a journey borne from the vision of an Iraq-Afghanistan War veteran, Andrew Biggio, who has captured the stories of these men in his upcoming book, The Rifle (Regnery, 2021), he shares the amazing heroics of some of the last remaining warriors of America’s Greatest Generation. Biggio, 32, began his quest after learning that his great uncle carried the M-1 Garand rifle during the war in Italy. It sparked his interest so much that he went out and bought a rifle of his own. He placed it in the hands of his Boston neighbor, Corporal Joe Drago, who served in the Pacific Theater. The infirm 92-year-old held the rifle and his entire body became animated – waving the rifle around with fire in his eyes and shared his stories with Biggio. It was then, Biggio knew his mission was clear – to capture and tell as many stories of surviving WWII veterans as he could as our nation loses over 1000 a day.
On December 10th, 2019 the city of Boston sent our group off with a hero’s celebration at Logan International Airport. We touched down in Paris the convoy of luggage and wheelchairs and veterans and chaperones then marched north to Luxembourg and Belgium with anticipation of what the next five days had in store.
Throughout the trip, at each stop, veterans gingerly climbed off of the charter coaches to be greeted by the people of Belgium with open arms. The gratitude, patriotism, and heartfelt emotion of those who endured the war was seen and heard. Tear filled eyes and a sea of applause with every stop. But the citizens of Bastogne had done something much more impressive to me than hanging banners and flags on every storefront. Much more than painting the windows with scenes from the war – caricatures of U.S. soldiers’ boots kicking Nazi forces in the rear end. They had passed along the adage of “Lest we forget” to the following generations. Men and women in their 30’s and 40’s to small children who stood in awe – each asking for autographs of these living legends on jackets and posters.
Corporal Chester “Chet” Rohn, 95, from McKinney, Texas sat behind me on the bus. Rohn was thin and frail. Shocks of silver hair peeked out from underneath his black baseball cap with his U.S. Army patch on the front. Proudly displaying the unit patch that he had fought in with General Patton’s Third Army with the 11th Armored Division – he’d also volunteered to stay back 7 months after the war had ended. To Rohn, the enemy wasn’t any different than U.S. soldiers.
He told me, “They had no choice to fight under Hitler. They didn’t have a choice – they weren’t animals. They were people. They didn’t tell us how to handle prisoners. No one told us to make friends, we just did. It didn’t take an officer to tell you to do this.”
On the fourth day of the trip the sun came out in Bastogne as we drove toward St. Vith. I looked out the large windows of the chartered motor coach and took in the scenery. The Black Pine trees. Moss-covered shingled rooftops. Brown, winding streams that spilled over the banks collecting fallen leaves. Flat, green turned fields of farms with dairy cows, fat sheep, and stout furry draft horses who had their winter coats. Long, brown hedgerows separated the houses – mostly built of multi-colored stone with odd-shaped windows.
Another soldier, Private First Class Frank Murphy, 95, sat next to me as we drove to seek out one last battlefield. A hidden treasure of foxholes had been there after seventy-five years – still carved into the soggy ground, covered with thick moss and a blanket of wet leaves. Both of us were warriors who fought different wars, in different generations – a difference of over four decades. Murphy fought on a scale of overwhelming odds. He battled in the bleak darkness of the forest. Hand to hand – killing a German soldier that stumbled into his foxhole with his helmet as a weapon for fear of shooting his rifle and making too much noise. In contrast, my Marines hunted a nameless, faceless, and ununiformed enemy that hid amongst the people in a city of 300,000 in Iraq. Both wars with challenges. Both filled with death, and killing, and uncertainty. We agreed on one thing – to survive, we had to make a lot of it up as we went along.
In all wars – in all countries so far from our own one question hung in my head as I rode the bus. How is it that men have to do and see such horrible things in wars in such beautiful places? This article can’t answer that question.
Whether those places were picturesque towns in Europe or the sights of a sunrise creeping over a desert horizon with grand mosques that stood backlit to the morning. Each war, each country, and city presented an allure – aesthetically and culturally, even to the daftest of soldiers who patrolled blindly through the streets and fields of spectacular landscapes. I think most had to subconsciously take it all in. Recording it in their minds through separate lenses.
But those places were not our homes. Yet our dysfunctional families that were born into war lived in them harmoniously. Fighting and surviving. We thought little of what it meant to understand the cultures we were fortunate to be surrounded by. Instead, we focused on razing what centuries had built – what men had built. Killing people – and killing the cities, each with little thought of ever returning to see what we’d left in our wake.
That is our culture as Marines and soldiers. A culture of war. Something known only to those who have fought and sacrificed – and lost our friends to bullets and bombs, at most times, to an enemy that we never saw until they were dead.
How does one explain this culture of war? How does one explain killing to those who can never grasp the severity of it all?
I thought more deeply about this later that day as I stood along a roadside trench near Malmedy, Belgium. A trench that bordered an unremarkable field to the lemmings locked in cars as they sped by. But for over 84 soldiers and dozens of civilians murdered in the field on December 17, 1944, by the Nazi Sixth Panzer Division, the field would be one never forgotten by those who survived what came to be known as the Malmedy Massacre.
I thought of the enemy that ruthlessly opened fire on an unarmed group of U.S. soldiers who’d already surrendered as they pushed their mechanized killing machines in a race toward Antwerp. This was their culture too. A culture that had been inculcated to German soldiers, some, no more than fourteen-years-old, that stood behind the triggers of machine guns mounted on their tanks. Following orders – and killing.
Along the five-day journey the men on the pages of Andy’s story were no longer words to me or simple characters – they’d come to life as they’d come into my life. Real heroes whom I thought I’d known already. It was then easy for me to understand how Andy had grown to love these men as if we had all fought alongside one another. Perhaps we had, war being timeless and all.
Maybe that is the strangeness of war and one lesson young men are forced to learn. To kill and love and forgive almost simultaneously. Not just for each other, but for those we fight.
Scott A. Huesing is a retired U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer who commanded Echo Company, 2d Battalion, 4th Marines during some of the bloodiest fighting during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is the author of the award-winning, bestseller Echo in Ramadi: The Firsthand Story of U.S. Marines in Iraq's Deadliest City (Regnery, 2018).