Reunion was an emotional journey
To the Editor:
I wanted to thank you for all your efforts on this year's reunion. As a "first timer" I don't have a way to compare but I can tell you I heard more than once from others that they considered this year the "best reunion ever."
That speaks for itself. Everything fell into place as a result of your longtime efforts and work. I wanted to thank you for that.
I enclose a letter I wrote to my family, some friends, and some of those with whom I attended the reunion. I hope it expresses my feelings about this year's reunion.
Associate, 324th Combat Engineers
I spent last week in Biloxi MS, with the 99th Infantry Division at their 55th annual reunion. I had joined their organization back some two years or more ago, while in the process of researching my brother's death in Germany during World War II.
He was a member of the 324th Combat Engineer Battalion which served as a support unit in the 99th Division. He was a member of the 3rd Platoon of B Company. Needless to say it was a very emotional visit with this group of American heroes.
In my research as a result of joining the 99th Division Association, I wrote every member of B Company I could find in the membership list. I also had a request for information published in the Checkerboard. As a result of these two actions I received various phone calls, letters, and e-mails. Several people supplied information but none knew Billy directly but wanted to help. Then came a letter from the son of Billy's platoon leader, Lt. James Burroughs.
After several e-mails, letters, and phone calls, we established that his dad did remember Billy and the event of his death. Lt. Burrough's son, Jim, had been on the Internet searching for information about his dad's WWII experiences and got a "hit" on my request for information. I had put his name in there because of a wonderful letter he had written to my dad about Billy's death and the location of his grave.
Of those who responded to my request, four attended the reunion in Biloxi. I shall develop only their stories as this is about this reunion. It seems that many of these men had been searching for the location of their leader for years but to no avail.
Lt. James C. Burroughs could not be located. When it was made public that I had found his son and thus Lt. Burroughs, these men were ecstatic. But when they heard his son, Jim, was to bring him to Biloxi they really got excited. This made several of us decide to go as we had already dismissed the idea of attending. So many of them are of poor health and travel is not an option for them.
The first of these was Vic Huss from Wheaton IL. It seems that Vic was hit with shrapnel from the same shell that killed my brother, Billy. Lt. Burroughs had been hit and received a minor wound to the back from this same shell.
Vic's description of the action of March 5, 1945, in his letter to me in 2002 was almost word-for-word the same as Lt. Burroughs' letter of May 1945. It was a very profound fact established 57 years apart by these two letters. Vic and I have formed a warm bond of friendship over the past two yeas. Because of some health problems, he had decided not to go to Biloxi. If he wasn't going then I decided not to go. Then hearing Lt. Burroughs was to be there he changed his mind, as did I.
Dr. John Ingram of Kansas had written me and at first thought he had seen Billy when he was killed. He later realized from Vic and Burroughs' letters that it was not the case. He has attended 10 reunions over the years. His e-mail today states this was one of the best ever because of our attendance.
Bob Burkman of Iowa came for his first reunion because of Burroughs. These men had great respect for his character and leadership. Bob left the front and the unit on Dec. 24, 1944, because of trench foot and after several months in the hospital he was reassigned to the Army Air Force in England and finished out the war there.
One comment he made was a replacement came to relieve him on Dec. 24, 1944, and he left for the hospital.
"He jumped into my foxhole and I left," he said. His thought was "could it have been Billy?" since Billy joined the unit on that day. I have no absolute proof of this but it is thought provoking.
Lt. James Burroughs came for the first time with his wife, Alice and his son, Jim. He is now 93 years old and still active. Other than hearing problems, he is in good health. He was from Nebraska originally and had a degree in engineering and a law degree from the "Cornhusker" school. He stayed in the reserves after his discharge and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel before retirement.
He worked at the VA as a lawyer all those many years in the Washington, D.C., area of Virginia. His son is a lawyer and is on the faculty of George Mason University. Burroughs was again with his men after some 59 yeas. What a homecoming there was. Vic Huss reminded him that the last time he saw Burroughs was on the morning of March 5, 1945, when he was hit and Billy was killed. Almost 60 years.
Vic, Burroughs, and I had an interview session Tuesday morning in my room as I searched for more information than I had yet received. It was a great experience to listen to these two men talk about those days during the Battle of the Bulge that they had survived.
I made notes and will transcribe them into some form soon. First you must understand that the 99th Division had only been in battle about a month when the Bulge started on Dec. 16, 1944. Thus, their nickname — the "Battle Babies." They were on the northern shoulder of Elsenborn Ridge. Their holding that ridge was considered by some historians as equally important as the holding of Bastogne by the 101st Airborne. The 99th Division had lost 2,200 men in this action. A notable fact also was that on the 99th right flank the 106th Infantry Division had surrendered to the Germans their whole division of some 8,000 troops, which was the largest surrender of American troops at one time ever.
On Wednesday the current 99th division historian group interviewed Vic, Bob, John, and Burroughs together and once again I had the honor of sitting in on this event. They fed off each other as each would be reminded of something when one would make a statement. It became apparent that some of these thoughts had been pent up for almost 60 years. A fact that many of these men could never talk of these days with their families but are willing and able to talk with each other about their common memories of these terrible period of time. It was a special day and event for me to observe these brave men talk about the events and their comrades. It truly was special.
On Thursday afternoon, we attended a presentation by Jean-Louis Seel who gave an account of the Belgium "Diggers." These men are the ones who have searched Elsenborn Ridge in search of men who were killed during those days of the Bulge and only received a shallow grave burial by their buddies. You may recall that it was a story in People magazine about a man, Vern Swanson, of the 99th Division that got me involved in my current search for information about Billy. He had searched for his buddies' bodies for all those years to finally locate them with the aid of Jean-Louis. Vern also was at the presentation and talked of this event. I had the honor of meeting Vern and Jean-Louis.
On Thursday night we attended the final event of the reunion which was a formal dinner. Vic, Bob, John, and I sat together (the Burroughs had gone home that morning). It was a nice way to close this five days of emotional rush. On Wednesday Dr. John Ingram had described a forward observer for the artillery climbing a tree to give directions to his gunners to line up on the German Panzers. He made a statement that he thought that guy was the "bravest" man he had seen in this fight since he had no cover and was easily seen in that tree. That night we sat at a table with three couples. As we walked around the table introducing ourselves, we also asked what group each represented. One man, John Thompson of Rhode Island, replied, "I was a forward observer for the 371st Artillery." I stood in awe as John's words ran through my mind and wondered if this might be the observer that John had seen. It seemed to be that all these men were in their own way special heroes.
On Friday I packed and left Biloxi with many memories of statements of these men racing through my mind. I just hope I can get all their thoughts together in some way that will reflect their sacrifices and dedication to duty. I felt so humbled to be in their presence and was honored by their acceptance of my being there. How I wish my mother and father could have met them. They would have been proud as I was that Billy was with such men when he was killed. What noble and brave men I shall never again meet.