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WWII vet given lost medals


Avalanche-Journal, Lubbock TX

The valor of a World War II infantry soldier was recognized recently in belated medal presentation ceremonies held at the Armed Forces Guard/Reserve Center.

James Brooks Speer, who survived both the Battle of the Bulge and a German prisoner of war camp, had never received public acknowledgment of the eight medals he earned in combat.

"I was discharged by myself, and wasn't discharged as part of a unit," he explains.

Then, 10 years ago, the medals were destroyed in a house fire. Replacement medals were sent and used in the ceremonies.

Speer was at the front line of the war in Europe for a month during Germany's massive attempt to break through Allied lines during the Battle of the Bulge.

He had been hit by shrapnel when a shell burst in a tree near his foxhole, but returned to the front as point man for the 393rd Infantry Battalion.

"The lieutenant was killed that morning," he remembers.

Speer, a corporal, actually hadn't been assigned to scout out the German position, but inexperienced recruits were considered unable to handle the job, so he and the lieutenant went instead.

The enemy allowed them to come into their midst without firing a shot in order to surprise the main force.

"They let me get right up in there among them before they ever started shooting. I guess that's the only thing that saved me, because I was up there where they were."

In the waist-deep snow, Speer's carbine jammed after one shot, leaving him no options.

"They captured me, and my outfit withdrew."

As though his situation couldn't be worse, American artillery fire began devastating the area where he was taken prisoner.

Not hit, Speer was turned over to a French soldier who had joined the German forces. "He and I walked to Flamershien. We walked for two or three days, and along the road, everything Germany had was destroyed."

A lot of prisoners were there, and he became acquainted with an infantry soldier named Harry Goldstein, who was from New York.

"Of course, we changed his name to Smith."

But Goldstein could speak German, and when the prisoners were sent on work details outside the camp, he was able to communicate with residents who were willing to help the prisoners by providing them extra food.

Speer remembers April 12, 1945, as one of the best days in his wartime experiences.

"An American tank battalion came in, and they immediately flew us out of there to France."

The liberation wasn't unexpected. "All the German guards had been running around learning how to say 'We surrender'."