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A soldier remembered

Sixty years ago, 1946, I received a letter from Mrs. W.D. Elliott, the mother of my 99th Infantry Division buddy, Harry M. Threlkeld Jr., killed in action late the afternoon of April 6, 1945, in the small town of Gliedorf, Germany, in the Ruhr Pocket.

Mrs. Elliott wrote as a grieving mother. How did my son die? Did he suffer? Was he killed by German or friendly fire? Harry's fountain pen, ring, pipe, tobacco pouch, and Testament were sent home. But what happened to his watch, wallet, and the pistol he'd gotten from a German prisoner, a grieving mother wonders?

In my response to Harry's mother, I only could tell her that I was wounded by the same shell that killed Harry and severely injured two other guys. I never made a copy of my response to Mrs. Elliott, but 60 years ago I think I responded with the facts as I remembered them.

My memory is that Harry led our squad and a bazooka team up a road following a tank that had been firing 88s at us as we fought our way into this little village. Suddenly, a shell exploded in the middle of our squad, and we began to shout, yell, and scream for help.

I knew I was hit. I crawled over to Harry and half carried, half dragged him to a nearby porch and shouted for a medic. The medic came, slit open Harry's jacket, and put sulfa powder and a bandage over the deep wounds in his back. Harry was quiet for a minute or two. Then he said, "I can't breathe." In a few minutes, Harry went to sleep. We had lost a buddy, a friend, and a very fine soldier.

Harry Threlkeld was not an ordinary guy. He was a 1943 graduate of South Side High School in Memphis TN, with Paul Vescovo and Bill Hitt, all three of whom were in the high school ROTC program. After Army basic training, Harry, Paul, and Bill were selected to join 500 other men in an Army engineering program (Army Specialized Training Program — ASTP) at John Tarleton Junior College, Stephenville TX.

As is well know, in March 1944, the Army discontinued the engineering phase of the ASTP program and more than 100,000 student-soldiers were moved from colleges and universities around the country into infantry divisions and other military operations. (This was considered a necessary decision in view of the forthcoming European invasion and eventual defeat of Germany.) Harry Threlkeld was assigned to the 395th Regiment and his high school friends, Paul Vescovo and Bill Hitt were assigned to the 393rd Regiment.

After six months of further infantry training in Texas, the 99th Division was on its way overseas, first to England, France, and then Belgium and Germany. Five weeks later, we were caught up in what has been described as the most critical battle of World War II — the Battle of the Bulge.

From early November 1944, until late January 1945, Harry, our buddies, and I lived three guys to a dugout — a hole in the ground. We brought doors from the small village of Hofen, Germany, to shore up our roofs, took carpets from local homes to lay on the dirt floors to sleep on, and scrounged for wood or coal briquettes to feed a warming fire. We burrowed down in our holes when we heard the pop of mortars, the scream of the 88s, or the put-put of buzz bombs. We ate C and K-rations and every day or two a wholesome, hot meal brought up to the front line in mermite cans. We held back the massive German attacks on Dec. 16, 1944, and remained in our positions for the next six weeks.

In late January 1945, the 99th Division went on the offensive, moving through villages and towns across the Rhineland to the outskirts of Cologne.

When the Remagen Bridge over the Rhine was captured in early March 1945, Harry, our platoon, and I were among the first infantrymen to run for our lives over this constantly bombarded German bridge that collapsed into the Rhine River a few days later.

A month later, after many firefights, on April 6, 1945, on a cold, wet, late afternoon, Harry Threlkeld died in Gliedorf, Germany, in what has become known as the Ruhr Pocket — the last days and weeks of the German resistance. One month later, almost to the day, the Germans surrendered.

Somewhere in the 1943 Memphis South Side High School yearbook, there probably are a few pictures of Harry Threlkeld. Somewhere in a Memphis cemetery, there is a grave stone with his name, date of birth, and death.

I wonder if an obituary was published that mentioned that Sergeant Harry M. Threlkeld was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge, and the Presidential Unit Citation for action in the Battle of the Bulge?

Sixty years ago, Mrs. Elliott was a grieving mother. She wanted Harry close to her and eventually arranged for his reburial in Memphis from a military cemetery in Europe.

"But to me Harry will never be dead. If I live to be very old, I shall always wait for him . . . to see him go like this, tears at my heart . . . makes me feel so old. I feel so tired! I want him close."

In my response 60 years ago, I hope I provided some comfort to Mrs. Elliott. She had raised a fine son and an outstanding, even heroic, soldier. I am sorry we never had the opportunity to meet face to face.

May Harry and his mother rest in peace.

Dr. Paul Vescovo is still a practicing physician in Kansas City MO. Bill Hitt lost a leg in the Ruhr Pocket but now is deceased.

Joseph L. Thimm K/395

Salem OR