Sacrifices a World Apart

This Veterans Day held special significance for many of our fathers and grandfathers and for millions who remember the Cold War and the cost of preserving both the peace and our freedom.

It was 25 years ago that the Berlin Wall was finally torn down on November 9, 1989. As a young Army officer I remember that hated symbol of communist tyranny, a wall being required to keep their citizens in, not an invader out. “Checkpoint Charlie” was infamous for its role serving as a point of passage between the West and East sides of Berlin and a visit to the “Wall Museum” was obligatory for anyone assigned or passing through Berlin during the Cold War. The museum was a living testament to the barbarism of communism and the extreme measures people would take to escape its tyranny. The East German Border guards had orders to shoot-to-kill anyone attempting to escape the East and 271 persons were killed between the Wall’s building in August, 1961 and its fall in 1989.

This autumn also marks the 70th anniversary of major battles and extraordinary sacrifices by our fathers in WWII. The year 1944 was the bloodiest year of the war with American casualties counted by the thousands every week.

In the Huertgen Forest on the western border of Germany, thousands of young American soldiers assaulted what the Nazis described as the “Westwall,” a heavily fortified defensive line in the midst of a dark and forbidding forest. It was an attempt to penetrate into the Third Reich and capture the Ruhr Industrial Valley, the heartland of Germany’s industrial war machine. The Huertgen closely resembled the dark forest described in “Hansel and Gretel.”

This offensive took place between September 1944 and February 1945 in the coldest and most miserable winter in Europe in generations. Troops were continuously exposed to cold, rain, mud and snow. The first troops to assault the Huertgen were soldiers of the 9th Infantry Division. Survivors of that battle recall being in continuous battle for 73 days without hot food or bathing, existing in miserable conditions.

Fighting was extremely close, measured in yards apart with rifles, machine guns and grenades. Artillery shells, as many as thirty per minute fired by the Germans and set to explode in the treetops, produced the worst effects, raining hot shrapnel down on American soldiers. The soldiers of the 9th Division were followed by soldiers of the 28th Division, a National Guard Division from Pennsylvania. The Germans renamed the red unit patch of the 28th from the “Keystone Division” to the “bloody bucket,” a nickname that stuck with American GI’s. They suffered terrible casualties, 3000 in 10 days to advance no more than three miles. In a later effort, the 28th Division suffered 6000 casualties in only six days.

Across the world the American Navy fought its largest surface engagement of WWII as a group of American Destroyers, small ships designed to sink submarines or defend against air attack, took on the main Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Leyte Gulf on October 25, 1944.

In October 1944, the Japanese launched a last gamble to thwart the American invasion of the Philippines. General MacArthur’s famous return to the Philippines was fully underway with thousands of troops landing on Leyte. The surrounding sea was filled with transports and supply ships but the main American fleet was lured away by a Japanese feint, leaving only a few light aircraft carriers and six American destroyers behind.

The Japanese suddenly appeared in the morning mists, the “Pagoda Masts” of Japanese battleships dominating the skyline. The Leyte landings were at grave risk as enormous shell splashes from battleship salvos straddled and struck lightly armored aircraft carriers.  The carrier “Gambier Bay” was struck repeatedly, eventually sinking, one of two carriers sunk by surface gunfire in WWII. The American skippers of six destroyers and destroyer escorts did the only thing they could; they attacked, charging the Japanese Battle Fleet with such ferocity that the enemy believed they were engaged by the main American fleet. The Destroyer “Johnston,” skippered by Commander Ernest Evans, the first native-American to command a U.S. warship, received direct hits from Japanese battleships hurling 2750 lb shells at 1650 feet per second. The “Johnston” kept firing as she sank, even as her decks were awash, scoring hits on the bridge of a Japanese heavy cruiser. The Japanese commander ordered a retreat and the Leyte landings were saved due to the incredible courage of American sailors and a Navy tradition of not giving up the fight. Commander Evans’ heroism was recognized by a posthumous award of the Medal of Honor.

Most of these brave men are gone; a 17-year-old boy who lied about his age to serve at Leyte Gulf would be 87 today. They’re passing quickly; remember them.

Al Fonzi
5th District Chairman, Republican Party, SLO County
President, SLO County Lincoln Club

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