Monday, May 30, 2016

Dundy County Gold Star Boys in the European Theater of WWII

Memorial Day Presentation
May 30, 2016
by Jim Buffington
(Used with Permission)

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here today, and especially thanks to the American Legion and the VFW for their sponsorship of these Memorial Day Services.  During World War II every family who had a member serving in the military was sent a service flag along with a blue star to hang in a window.  If a son was killed in action, the family was sent a gold star which they placed over the top of the blue star to let anyone who passed know that they had lost a son.  Two years ago, here in front of this Memorial, we brought to life the memories of those 17 Dundy County boys who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Pacific Theatre.  Today, let’s bring back to life the European Theatre and the memories of the eleven Dundy County boys whose families received the gold star from that Theatre.

Although World War II began for America on December 7, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it was not until nearly a year later when American soldiers began action in Europe.  The reason for the delay was that in December, 1941, America had only the 17th largest army in the world, and it took a long time to mobilize and train the millions of troops necessary for the war effort.  Combat in the European Theatre began, not in Europe, but in North Africa, because Hitler had over 300 divisions in Europe.  At that time an invasion of the European mainland in 1942 would have been doomed to failure.  Several Dundy County boys served in North Africa as the invasion there began in November of 1942.  Life for the front-line soldier in North Africa was tough.  These soldiers were filthy dirty, they ate if and when, slept on hard ground without cover.  They lived in a constant haze of dust, oppressed by the desert heat during the day, the freezing cold nights, and the constant pestering of desert flies.

The North African campaign lasted six months, and resulted in the capture of 250,000 enemy troops.  Americans suffered 19,000 casualties in this campaign, including nearly 3,000 killed in action, but none of these were Dundy County boys. 

From North Africa, the allies next invaded Sicily in June 1943, the first time American troops confronted the enemy on European soil.  Sicily is the rugged island off the toe of Italy, and it is about five times the size of Dundy County. 

Ernie Pyle, the war correspondent beloved by GIs, described the campaigning in North Africa and Sicily in this way: “Outside of the occasional peaks of bitter fighting and heavy casualties that highlighted military operations, the outstanding trait of these campaigns is the terrible weariness that gradually comes over everybody.  Soldiers become exhausted in mind and soul as well as physically.  It’s the perpetual choking dust, the muscle-racking hard ground, the snatched food sitting ill on the stomach, the heat and the flies and dirty feet and the constant roar of engines and the perpetual moving and the never settling down and the go, go, go, night and day, and on through the night again.  Eventually it all works itself into one dull, dead pattern—yesterday is tomorrow and Troina is Randazzo and when will we ever stop and, God, I’m so tired.”

Sicily was a tough slog, and 2,300 Americans would be killed.  Most of the veteran German troops were able to escape from Sicily to Italy, where they fought ferociously all during the Italian campaign, where the Allies would be fighting in Northern Italy, when the war finally ended. 

The allies landed on the shores of mainland Italy on September 3, 1943, nine months before the D-Day invasion of France began.  Ernie Pyle had this to say about the mountainous Italian peninsula: “The war in Italy was tough.  The land and the weather were both against us.  It rained and it rained.  Vehicles bogged down in the mud and temporary bridges washed out.  The hills rose to high ridges of almost solid rock.  We couldn’t go around them through the flat valleys, because the Germans were up there looking down on us, and they would have let us have it.  So we had to go up and over.  A mere platoon of Germans, well dug in on a high, rock-spined hill, could hold out for a long time.”

James Carlyle Carlon graduated from Benkelman High School in 1931.  Lyle, as he was called by his friends, was sent overseas a month before the Allies invaded Sicily.  Lyle became a tank commander in charge of his squadron in Italy.  On October 23, 1943, Lyle Carlon was killed in action.

Edgar H. Nordhausen served in the armored infantry.  In January of 1944 his unit was sent to Italy, just in time for one of the most terrible battles of the Italian Campaign—Cassino.  It was here at Cassino, on February 11, that Edgar Nordhausen would make the ultimate sacrifice.  The Battle of Cassino would last another three months before the Allies could claim victory.

On June 6, 1944, the D-Day invasion of France began.  At the conclusion of the ceremonies here, please join us at the cemetery to revive the memories of our remaining nine Gold Star servicemen of the European Theatre.

At the Cemetery

On June 6, 1944, the Allies landed and parachuted ten divisions on the beaches and hedgerows of Normandy.  Opposing them were 59 German divisions scattered throughout France and the Low Countries.  Because the Germans believed the real invasion would come farther north, the Allies were able to overcome the 59-10 odds against them.  And day after day, fresh Allied divisions were landed at Normandy.  It was a narrow thing, but the Allies were able to secure the Normandy beachhead, but not without cost.

John Marlin McKie was born in Haigler, and married to Minnie Mae Hamil, also of Haigler.  We are grateful to him for helping to secure the Normandy beachhead.  John McKie was killed in action on June 14, 1944, and was posthumously awarded the bronze star for bravery in action.

John F. Hollinger grew up in Benkelman.  He was a member of a tank crew in the Third Armored Division, known as the Third Herd.  This division spearheaded the US First Army through Normandy, and in August, 1944, captured 8,000 German prisoners after cutting them off at the Falaise Gap, and ending the Normandy Campaign.  On September 12, the Third Herd breached the Siegfried Line on the German border, taking part in the Battle of Hertgen Forest.  It was about September 15 that John Hollinger made the supreme sacrifice, the first Dundy County boy to die on German soil.  It was in the same area where his father had served in World War I.

September proved to be a severe month for Dundy County boys.  Elbert Leroy Mathis, son of Albert Mathis of Benkelman, was killed in action in Germany on September 28, 1944. 

Even though the Allies had crossed into Germany in September, they penetrated only 22 miles inside the border during the next three months.  One of the obstacles to deeper penetration was the Roer River, where, in November, rainfall was triple the monthly average.  Rain grayed the soldiers, melding them with the mud until they seemed no more than clay with eyes.  It was here at the Roer River that Earl Medlock, son of Mr. and Mrs. Bert Medlock of Haigler, was killed on December 3, 1944.  Earl Medlock’s brother Leonard was to be killed on Okinawa in May of 1945.

On December 16, 1944, Hitler launched a surprise attack with more than 400,000 soldiers against 228,000 thousand Americans in the Ardennes Forest in what is now known as the Battle of the Bulge.  Americans rushed reinforcements to the Battle as best they could, but conditions were terrible.  It was the coldest winter in Europe in the 20th century, and most GIs had no overcoats.  It was the second bloodiest battle in American history, with 89,000 casualties and 19,000 killed in action, and one of those killed was Albert Haas, son of Mrs. August Gunther.  Albert had spent most of his younger life in Dundy County.  He was killed on December 17.

The Battle of the Bulge raged for 39 awful days.  Henry Eugene Krause grew up in Haigler, and graduated from Haigler High School in 1941.  He trained as a machine gunner, and left for the European Theatre in November, 1944.  He was killed in action on January 3, 1945.

As in all wars, many deaths in World War II occur away from the battle field.  William Kitchin Douthit grew up north of Max, and graduated from Benkelman High School.  He received his training in Texas, where he qualified as an expert rifleman.  In February 1945, his family received word that he died at sea in the European Theatre as a result of a heart attack.

Alonzo Harry Greene, son of William Greene and Marie Denny, lived almost all his years in Dundy County.  He was married to Ida May McCoy of Max.  Alonzo volunteered for the airborne paratroops.  He was one of the reinforcements rushed to the defense of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.  Later, at the battle at Cleaveauz, he was promoted to Staff Sergeant and awarded the Bronze Star for gallantry in action.  On March 24 he was reported missing in action, and his body was later found near Wesel, Germany.  After the war was over, all families of those killed in action were given the choice of having their sons’ remains returned home, or to be buried in an overseas military cemetery.  Almost half the families chose to have their loved ones buried overseas.  Alonzo Greene today rests in the American Military Cemetery in Holland.

James H. Wooters graduated from Parks High School in 1933.  He enlisted in 1943 and was assigned to the infantry.  He entered the European Theatre in December 1944, and was killed in action on April 7, 1945, one month before Germany surrendered.  When soldiers were killed in action, they were often temporarily buried on the battlefield.  A wooden cross was erected on the grave, and the soldiers’ dog tags were fixed to the cross.  James Wooters was the last of the Dundy County boys to have his dog tags hammered to a wooden cross.  He is buried in Butzbach, Germany.

Today, if you thank a veteran for his service and suggest he is a hero, he will almost always say, “I was no hero.  I was just doing my job.  The real heroes are those who never came back.”  Today, we pay our respects and our eternal gratitude to those soldiers, sailors, and Marines whose names you see here.  Thank you, Gold Star Veterans, thank you so much.  

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