World War II veterans of the 99th Infantry Division held their final reunion July 23-26 in Overland Park KS, a suburb of Kansas City. This was the 62nd annual convention held since 1950. About 360 attended, including 91 veterans, their wives, widows, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and guests. In 1944, when it went overseas, the 99th had 15,000 troops.
A year ago, at the convention in Louisville, our officers and board of directors concluded that rather than have our organization die slowly as our membership dwindled each year, we should set a final get-together for those still living and able to share in a final farewell. At that time, they elected B.O. Wilkins president of the association. I was elected vice president.
Early this year, Jan. 11, I became president of the 99th Infantry Division Association on the death of President B.O. Wilkins. I realized I had a responsibility for the final reunion. I wanted to find someone as our final speaker we could identify with World War II. The great leaders during the war, Roosevelt, Churchill, Eisenhower, and MacArthur were not still alive, but they had children and grandchildren. I thought of John Eisenhower, a brigadier general in world war II when his father was our Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. A noted historian, his book on the Battle of the Bulge, “The Bitter Woods,” gave credit to the 99th Division for delaying Hitler’s drive through the Ardennes. I knew he would be a very popular speaker. I wrote and invited him to address our convention.
Gen. John Eisenhower, age 88, very graciously responded to my invitation with a phone call in which he said he was honored by being asked to speak to our reunion, but “I’m just too old to travel.” He then added that he had a daughter who would be a good speaker and that she lived in Kansas City, near our convention. She is president and CEO of People to People International, an organization founded by her grandfather, President Dwight Eisenhower. I e-mailed her an invitation and she enthusiastically accepted, stating she cherished World War II veterans. I knew Mary Jean Eisenhower would be a delightful speaker. She remained for a long time after her talk so all had a chance to get pictures taken with her.
Activities and tours at the reunion included, coincidentally, a trip to Eisenhower’s Presidential Library and Museum at Abilene KS, and to Ft. Leavenworth. We had a presentation by the Diggers, the Belgian men who have given countless hours as volunteers locating the remains of our soldiers who were killed in action and missing in action for many years after the war. Bill Warnock, author of the book written about their searches and success, “The Dead of Winter,” was with us, as was Robert Humphrey, author of “Once Upon a Time in War: The 99th Division in World War II.”
Special guests from Belgium, Marcel and Mathilde Schmetz (the M&Ms) have given much time to creating a war museum in Belgium and have welcomed many returning veterans of the war. Major General Waff, commanding general of the 99th Regional Support Command (RSC), spoke and presented awards to the Diggers and Warnock.
All of us still alive owe much to those who served during exciting times, the Depression, the war, and the uncertainty of drugs, disease and corruption. I lived in the snow of the Ardennes, and viewed the bridge at Remagen, before and after it fell in the Rhine on March 17, 1945. My contribution may have been small, but I have enjoyed a ringside seat in the history of our nation. For those who made history and those who have recorded it, I am grateful.