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From Stars and Stripes: No one left to tell the tales


Stars and Stripes

My childhood heroes were Willie and Joe.

Not Mays and DiMaggio.

Just Willie and Joe.

I found them in "Up Front," a book that belonged to my father. It was written by cartoonist and soldier Bill Mauldin and offers his observations and recollections of the war from footsoldier level.

And it includes his cartoons of the two unshaven, hunch-shouldered, disheveled GIs who paid scant attention to the nuances of the English language.

They became heroes to me.

And the cartoons were funny. Still are. A favorite shows Willie and Jo hugging the ground while bullets whiz close overhead. "I can't get no lower, Willie," Joe says. "Me buttons is in th' way."

The book helped ignite a lifelong fascination with World War II. I was already interested in the war. My father had repaired damaged B-24s in the Pacific. And my mother's uncle is buried in Plot C, Row 1, Grave 58 at the Cambridge American Military Cemetery in England.

But Mauldin's drawings captivated me. And, because he created Willie and Joe for the pages of Stars and Stripes, it was thrilling to land a job with the newspaper in 1988. My name would appear where Mauldin's did. My stories would run on the same pages where Willie and Joe shuffled along nearly 50 years earlier.

I was working for the newspaper read by all the soldiers who tramped across Europe in battle with Nazi Germany.

Plus, a few months after my arrival at Stripes, editor Betty Luman included me on a team dispatched to Normandy to cover the 45th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe.

For a few days, I rubbed shoulders and drank beers with the real Willies and Joes. They told me their stories and at the places where those stories occurred.

These were Mauldin's cartoons come to life.

CARTOON: Willie and Joe are hunkered down in the front of a landing craft while shells light up the sky. "Try to say sumpin' funny, Joe."

Raymond Moon of Orlando FL, was in a landing craft on D-Day, hunkered down in the second row and listening to the rattle of machine gun bullets striking the door of the small boat, sounding like lethal popcorn.

"My God," he thought, "they're going to let down that door."

They did and the bullets raked the men at the front of the boat. Moon lived because the men behind pushed to get out and he fell over the dead body of the man in front of him. The man behind him, too, was killed.

Since that first trip to Normandy, I've walked with vets across the battlefields of the war, from those Normandy beaches to the Ardennes, site of the Battle of the Bulge, and on to Dachau, which I visited with the first Americans to witness the horrors of the concentration camp 50 years earlier. I even partied in Pilsen in the Czech Republic with that city's liberators.

The old vets were usually surprised to meet a Stars and Stripes reporter. In 1989, colleague Vince Crawley and I were writing our stories at a bar booth in St. mere Eglise, the first French town liberated on D-Day.

Into the bar came several vets and one asked if we were journalists. When we told him we were and where we worked, his jaw fell. He literally dragged his buddies in from the street to meet us.

"These fellows are with Stars and Stripes," he'd tell them.

One old vet sat down across from Vince and continually patted Vince's hand, saying, "You guys did a great job for us during the war. You really did."

Not us, of course. But we knew what he meant.

I recently bumped into veteran Keith Roberts at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, England. He had been a navigator aboard a B-24.

On his second mission, the aircraft was badly damaged and the crew was forced to jump. They wanted to jump on the friendly side of the front line, but no one knew where it was.

"I knew," Roberts said. "I'd read it in Stars and Stripes that morning before we left England."

With Roberts' information, the pilot steered the faltering aircraft behind the Allied line and ordered the crew to jump.

I told Roberts he had probably waited 60 years to thank a Stars and Stripes reporter.

"That's right," he said with a laugh. "Thanks."

CARTOON: Willie to a medic handing out medals: "Just gimme a couple aspirin. I already got a Purple Heart."

With very few exceptions, the vets I've met have been humble, never boasting about their exploits, no matter how deserved a few boasts might be.

Lyle Bouck is a good example. I met him in 1990 when veterans of the Battle of the Bulge were walking in their own footsteps across Belgium and Luxembourg.

In December 1944, while Europe was suffering one of its coldest winters on record, Hitler launched a counterattack. Bouck — pronounced Buck — was a lieutenant in charge of an Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon in the 394th Infantry.

It fell to him and the 18 men he commanded to hold up for hours the advance of Kampfgruppe Peiper, a lead element of the counterattack. Bouck's men were dug in and had the high ground and so were able to delay the convoy of 100 tanks, 80 half-tracks, and thousands of men before he and his men were eventually captured.

His effort went unnoticed for decades, but probing historians uncovered it and Bouck was eventually presented with the Distinguished Service Cross.

But when I met him nearly 46 years after the event, Bouck, a chiropractor in St. Louis, was still bothered by a flaw in his strategy. He should have moved his men onto the road ahead of the convoy and fought a short delaying action, time and again, withdrawing and then repeating the effort. This would have prevented the capture of his highly-trained soldiers.

"I felt it was my fault this happened to us," he said, still second-guessing himself.

I've watched the old vets laugh and I've watched them cry. And I've laughed and cried right along with them.

In 1990, during a tour of the Bulge by veterans of the 99th Infantry Division, Roger Foehringer, an insurance agent from near Chicago, told the story to a group of vets about his capture, which was preceded by a futile attempt to stop a German tank with a bazooka.

One of the cooks tried to load the thing from the wrong end. The tank was nearly on top of them when the bazooka was finally fired.

Foehringer, laughing so hard he could hardly talk, said, "He missed the goddamn thing."

It probably wasn't funny when it happened, but the decades have softened the horror and highlighted the irony.

One of the first veterans I met at Normandy in 1989 was Charles Maragioglio, a hospital janitor from California. He landed on Utah Beach on June 6, 1944, while his brother was landing on Omaha Beach.

Maragioglio approached me at a hotel because he heard me speaking