Doug was our high school English teacher, but I recall him better as Ben Franklin in the school play, “1776.” He leaned hard on a cane, involved every audience member in his cause – the fight for liberty, stakes of death as if he meant every word – and he did. Because he was one of the boys who landed on Omaha, dog-white, D-Day, promoted to Captain on the beach, “dead everywhere,” a Major by Remagen.
Yes, he meant it. Funny thing is, he never spoke about D-Day or Remagan back then, or any of the places in between – First Army, 49th AAA Brigade, up “300-foot escarpments” to Vierville-Sur-Mer, “thick hedgerows tanks could not go through,” “fields we believed were mined … until a French farmer staked a cow on one,” Carentan, St. Lo to Paris.
In time, his brigade defended installations in France, Holland, Belgium, Luxemburg, and Germany, but getting there was the story. In May 1993, 21 years ago, Doug honored a grandson with an easygoing interview over old maps. The interview was captured on a CD.
You might have thought, in the gentle way that he spoke, he was describing a canoe trip or day of sailing. You might think he was talking baseball, played summers before the war with his future wife’s brother, who would die in Sicily, winning the Distinguished Service Cross for saving his company.
But no, Doug was talking – in his off-hand way – about the most existential moment of that past 160 years, perhaps in human history, a short stretch in which humanity either won or lost – to the brutal, uncompromising, ruthless forces of darkness.
And Doug was not just there – he was in the middle of it. His brigade was at the Ardennes that bitter December in 1944 when AAA was part of a fight that held the line against what was later understood to be the battle Germany had to win, or they lost it all. That is why – in “Band of Brothers” – the Ardennes is featured, along with Dick Winters and Easy Company.
But there is more. You see, in October 1944, Doug lodged at The Ardennes Inn, wild boar on a wall, no idea the Battle of the Bulge was coming. There was “snow on the ground,” and intelligence put the Germans on their heels, in retreat. Doug’s AAA brigade went “right through” the Siegfried Line, “barb wire, dips, and concrete.” Germany lay before them.
Malmedy – soon famous for the Nazi massacre of POWs – lay nearby. Doug was attached to HQ when he got tasked with recon. General Timberlake needed intel. Germans were probing at Ardennes – why? Doug got a jeep, 50 cal machine gun. Two guys went west; he went east. Other weird things happened. “Germans were getting through our front lines in US uniforms … American-speaking Germans.” His mission was to “scout and report back.”
“I get four miles out, just a machine gun on the jeep, and … here’s a great monster coming over the hill, one of those 88 tanks.” These were German 88 mm guns on Tiger tanks, deployed with Panzers. Hitler had amassed 600 tanks, 200,000 troops, a final push. Doug had stumbled into it.
Retelling the discovery to his grandson, Doug is nonplussed; a column of tanks made him duck into the woods, get back to HQ, intelligence triggered retreat. The truth is more sobering.
Doug had hit the German vanguard for the Battle of the Bulge, the tip of Germany’s 6th Panzer Army. Official reports in “Unit History” note “intelligence reports had given an indication … middle of December.” That would be about when Doug made his find.
By 17 December, Doug’s “Brigade was squarely in the middle of the strong spearhead of the German 6th Panzer Army,” according to official records. While AAA held, “the Germans were still advancing … getting uncomfortably close to the Brigade Command Post.”
All of this begs the point. Doug did more than he cared to tell. On return to Ardennes, his room was gone, inn gone, race on for a river crossing. Germans blew all bridges, except Remagan, which the Luftwaffe tried to demolish, except Doug’s 49th AAA was there, defending. The First Army got across, a bridgehead for six divisions, 125,000 troops, accelerated the war’s end.
What Doug did not say, among other things, is that he lived through what many did not – D-Day to Remagan. He likely saw more men die in a year, June 6, 1944, to May 8, 1945, than most cities of Americans will see die over their combined lifetimes. He tucked it away.
That is what those boys did. One citation reads: “Landing on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France early on June 6, 1944, under withering small arms and artillery fire, the Battery calmly and efficiently proceeded to set up the Brigade Command Post …” then more bravery at Saint Lo, “biggest AAA defense in history.”
The citation commends “aggressive defense” in five countries, crossing 17 rivers, Normandy to Ardennes, anti-aircraft artillery turned into anti-tank weapons. All told, the brigade destroyed 1,271 Luftwaffe planes, 176 tanks. Citation ends: “No military target … defended by AAA units of the First Army has been damaged by aerial attacks, including the Capitals of London Paris, Brussels, and Luxembourg.” This is just one of 15 citations.
Perhaps most humbling, as one relives Doug’s interview, is the casual way in which he describes medals on his uniform, bronze star, silver star, Croix de Guerre with star, division-level award to one man, ribbons for this and that campaign. The takeaway 21 years ago is that Doug left the sorrow behind, part of the past. He recalled events for a grandson, no focus on him, no dwelling.
My mind goes back to Doug as Ben Franklin because he was so good – in that role. He was – for a time – Ben Franklin. Somehow Normandy, the Bulge, Remagan made real his stage presence. To Doug, liberty, equality, and America’s greatness were real. He defended them in his time, as Franklin had at the Constitutional Convention.
Like Franklin, Doug involved his audience – made us believe in those ideals, liberty, the day. Said Franklin: “Tell me, and I forget, teach me and remember, involve me, and I learn.” Franklin did that. Doug did that. On this Memorial Day, we must do that.
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