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Once Upon a Time in WWII: Combat Soldiers of the 99th Infantry Division years ago

By ROBERT E. HUMPHREY

© 2007

"Once Upon a Time in WWII" is dedicated "To All those Who Served in the 99th Infantry Division." The appendix will list all interviewees along with my heartfelt thanks. Unfortunately, the book will not be published until next year, but Charles Rankin, editor of the University of Oklahoma Press, promises the hardback to be sold at a reasonable price. Hopefully the book and I will be at the 2008 reunion. — RH

I first learned of the 99th Infantry Division in early 2001 when I read an item in the Sacramento Bee about a local veteran of World War II who had written a book about his Army training and the initial fighting during the Battle of the Bulge. Growing up I had been interested in World War II, so a couple of weeks later I called George Neill, the author. As it happened Neill was taking a class at Sacramento State University where I teach, and he stopped by and chatted. Neill gave me the names of three other veterans who had served in the 99th. For reasons that only my subconscious can answer, I placed long-distance calls to these three ex-GIs, who were friendly, candid, modest, and pleased someone was interested in their Army service. From them I discovered the 99th Division had a veterans association with its own newspaper, the Checkerboard, which published an annual list of all current members and their addresses. Using that database, I began talking with other 99ers, a process that would continue for more than five years, until I had interviewed either by phone or in person some 350 veterans of the Division. What began as an interesting study became a mission in which I wanted to tell their tale, even as they and the rest of their generation recede from memory.

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In June 2001 I attended my first 99th Division reunion at Fort Mitchell KY, where ex-GIs met old comrades and renewed relationships begun decades earlier. I heard talk about the Battle of the Bulge, particularly a long winter spent on bitterly cold Elsenborn Ridge in eastern Belgium. This so piqued my curiosity that I decided to see the place for myself. I flew to Europe that summer where Jean Louis Seel, an experienced Belgium guide, escorted me onto the Ridge (today a Belgium Army camp) and through various villages and roadways in eastern Belgium where fierce fighting had occurred during the winter 1944-1945. (In 2004 I returned to the Bulge battlefield and then followed the entire route of the Division from Belgium to southern Germany). I wrote a few essays for the Checkerboard, but not with the intention of producing a book. It was only at the urging of veterans that I decided to expand my research and trace the history of the Division, focusing on the thoughts, feelings, actions, and experiences of the men involved in infantry warfare.

As I talked to these veterans, men in their late 70s and early 80s, I learned they had revealed little or nothing to their families (parents, spouses, children, or grandchildren) regarding what had happened during the war. Most 99ers have gone to their graves without relating the physical hardships and psychological suffering they endured. But those who remained when I began this study could relate their experiences, or what they could remember, of what had had been seared and sealed into their memory banks. During their interviews some men displayed powerful, distressful emotions while recalling painful events bottled up because they did not want to relive the incidents that produced such horror and sorrow. Many interviewees told me I was the first person to ask them directly about harrowing experiences in combat.

Interviews lasted several hours, and I often reconnected (by e-mail, letter, and telephone) with the men to ask additional questions. My sample was neither systematic nor random, but I talked to some members of every company and battery in the Division. I was particularly interested in the experiences of riflemen because the most stressful and dangerous conditions existed at the front, where no one wanted to be. I have relied on personal memories and written memoirs of events that happened years earlier, and these recollections could be influenced by subsequent conversations, readings, and the passage of time. I tried to find corroboration or agreement whenever possible, and I discarded stories that had not been personally witnessed or seemed self-serving. Some veterans possess fantastic memories, able to recall minute details of certain episodes; others could remember only a few incidents and conversations that for some reason stuck in their minds. Normally all of us cannot recall much of what occurred yesterday, let alone last week, or last month. But all of us remember most clearly those past events that produced joy, sadness, and pain. In World War II a lifetime of terror, suffering, and loss were crammed into seconds, minutes, hours, and days of combat.

I was quite taken by these men, not only because of their participation in a world-shaping event, but also because they had experienced life-threatening situations they could and would not avoid. Youthful and patriotic, they thought the United States was in peril, and they had a duty to defend their country. As World War II and these American soldiers fade from our collective memory, perhaps, we might honor their lives by knowing and remembering what they did fighting for a cause they believed in. We are indebted to these men, especially those who did not return.

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