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Memoir shows misery of combat


Reporter, Baltimore Sun

Francis Nash "Ike" Iglehart Jr.'s extraordinary life almost reads like something out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel or short story. It had all the patrician social underpinnings and story line the Jazz Age author would have found attractive.

"Frank Iglehart would seem to have led the good life — foxhunting, timber-racing, open-ocean sailing, partnership in a Towson law firm," reported The Sun in 2005. "One wife, five children, money, old family, Union and Confederate ancestry, Princeton, University of Maryland School of Law, progressive Democratic politics. The works."

Iglehart, who died Dec. 28, 2007, at 82, was born in Baltimore MD, and raised in the Worthington Valley, where he described his life growing up there as a "sheltered existence."

When he was 12, he was sent to St. Paul's School, a Concord NH, boarding school. When he was in his senior year in 1943, he attempted to enlist in the Marine Corps and was turned down because he failed the eye test.

Immediately after graduation, he was drafted into the Army.

"Scoring high on the Army classification test, and being nearsighted, he was assigned to the ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program), which was ostensibly designed to prepare bright soldiers for office training in intelligence, engineering, etc." wrote a son, John Stokes Iglehart, in a biographical memoir about his father.

"However, as D-Day approached, the soldiers destined for the ASTP were instead reassigned to plug gaps in the front line infantry, because of the losses in the Italian campaign and the expectation of high casualties in the coming invasion," the son wrote. "He always enjoyed the irony that being chosen for the ASTP (studious and nearsighted) actually destined you for the fiercest fighting on the Western front."

A decade ago, the elder Iglehart decided to write a memoir about his World War II days. In it, he told how in 1972 he successfully located his old 99th Division foxhole companion, Jim Speer in Idalou TX. The two had not spoken since 1945.

The Vietnam War was still raging and Iglehart wanted to write something "about another war, not necessarily a better war, but a different one," he wrote.

He dedicated his book to his former comopany commander, Bill Smith, Sgt. Ed Orlando, "and all the men of Company G, many of whom did not make it past their 18th birthdays, like replacements Gillen and Gutsweiler, who became my assistant gunners and ammunition bearers during the month of January 1945."

The winter of 1944 was one of the worst to grip Europe in 50 years, and Iglehart found himself that December, deep in the snows of Belgium's Elsenborn Ridge, shortly before what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Because it was supposed to be a quiet sector on the front, his division was thinly deployed. That would all change several days later when the entire German 6th Panzer Division roared through his area in the war's last great counter-offensive.

After enduring days of enemy shelling on their position, Iglehart left his foxhole mate Don Riddle behind to gather rations. Returning, he discovered Riddle with a rope around his neck hanging from the poles that supported the foxhole roof.

"Something seemed to be wrong — a dark form was bobbing up and down on its knees in the hole with a rope running from one of the poles into the darkness. It was Don, and the rope was around his neck," he wrote. "He had slashed his wrists with a razor blade. The blood appeared black in the moonlight. 'Let me alone, let me alone — it's no use. I can't stand it anymore,' he sobbed.

"He had suffered the ultimate loss of faith. Nothing that we had done or endured had any meaning for him. I cut him down with my trench knife, bandaged his wrists and half carried him sobbing to the rear," he wrote.

It was Christmas Eve. Iglehart was 19.

On a late January moonlit night in 1945, Iglehart's squad of 12 was ordered to cross a snowy field and launch a surprise attack on a German position.

When he protested that this amounted to a suicide mission, because the enemy had been watching them for weeks, the sergeant threatened to have him transferred to another unit.

So they went, and when it was over, 10 of the squad were dead and Iglehart had been seriously wounded by mortar fire.

"Suddenly, red flashes burst in the snow around us as mortar shells rain down. A shock wave hits me without sensation of sound, and it feels as if a giant has kicked me in the left thigh with football cleats," he wrote. "Something warm is trickling into my pants. Every man in the squad seemed to be a lifeless form, except me."

Finally, at dawn, under the cover of an American artillery barrage, he was able to drag himself back to friendly lines.

After being sent to France, where he recovered from two operations on his injured left leg, Iglehart was able to rejoin his unit in time for the historic crossing of the Rhine River.

Iglehart's decorations included the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.

"The Combat Infantryman Badge was created by the Army in 1943 to recognize those most likely to be killed or wounded during the war," the son wrote.

"It all seems like such a long time ago, and yet, in other ways, still so immediate," Iglehart wrote. "After all, it was supposed to have been the best years of our lives."

— Reprinted from the Jan. 19 Baltimore Sun