“Their life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly—but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.”—Ernie Pyle, World War II journalist, writing about what he saw at the front. Pyle was killed in action April 18, 1945.
I do not come from a family that talks much about its military service. My late father was drafted in 1958, served his two-year-long tour, and then came back home to a job that had been held for him. This was during the Cold War, so he did not see action but he did see more of the world than he had up till then. He served in the U.S. Army in Germany during the Cold War as a calculator who was tasked with determining missile flight paths. (I believe he worked with the Atlas missile, an early ICBM model.)
His older brother, my uncle Richard, was a lifelong Army man who served from the 1950s into the ’70s. Richard was a combat veteran, but he never spoke of his experiences in Vietnam with any family member; my understanding is he would go silent for long periods so his letters home were not sent from Vietnam or associated military mailboxes in order to protect his family from the fear that he was in a dangerous combat zone.
Their father, my grandfather Bill, was too young to enlist for action in the First World War (an older brother fought), and by December 7, 1941, he was the father of four young sons and nearly 40, so our country did not call on him.
Bill’s younger brother, my great-uncle Walter, fought with the 104th Infantry and died in action in France in 1944. (Above is a photo from Find A Grave.com of Walter Aldrich’s gravestone in Lorraine American Cemetery, near Metz, France. It is the largest American World War II cemetery in Europe.)
To the best of my knowledge, Walter Aldrich is the one family member for me to commemorate this and any Memorial Day. Many Aldrichs related to me have fought in America’s wars from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War—we have a photo of a relative who saw action at Gettysburg but I do not yet know his story well enough to recount it in the pages of this website—and beyond. Memorial Day commemorates those who died in action, like Technical Sergeant Walter Aldrich.
The 104th Infantry Regiment, an element of the 26th Division, is one of the oldest in the country, having first been mustered in 1639 in Springfield, Massachusetts. This is the area of the country my part of the Aldrich family comes from. (It is a line that can be traced directly to the first Aldrich in America.) The 104th saw action at the Battle of Bunker Hill and at Gettysburg and is also known as the “Yankee” Division. Technical Sergeant Walter J. Aldrich, killed November 19, 1944, was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. (Here is a PDF of the division’s battle casualties. If you do not have Adobe Acrobat or if your browser does not open PDFs, do not click on it.)
According to an online history of the 26th Infantry “Yankee” Division: “On 15 November, after an intensive shelling, the Regiment took Marsal and Harracourt and assembled in the Foret de Bride et de Koecking to establish a defense along the Lindequin-Dieuze Road. In driving for the towns immediately east of the Foret de Bride et de Koecking to cut off railroad arteries that fed Metz, the Division ran up against a strong defensive position.” In some way, my great-uncle played a part in the fight for Metz, which the Allies re-took on November 17, near where he is buried. Walter was killed in action on November 19, so the fight to retain what had been won days earlier was as vicious as the fight to claim it.
My father wrote in his family history that Walter “enlisted in the Army on March 10, 1941. I remember Uncle Walter visiting us in South ‘Derry while wearing his uniform prior to being sent overseas. I wish now that when I was in the Army in 1958–1960 and stationed in Germany, I had known where he had been buried in France. I went to Paris, France, on a long weekend pass and would have gone to the cemetery to see his grave.” (My dad’s “South ‘Derry” is South Londonderry, Vermont, his hometown.)
There is a National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New Windsor, NY, near where I live, but Walter Aldrich is not on their roster.
Walter died ten days shy of his 36th birthday.
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Soldiers are sent to fight, and many of them die. Near where I live is a newly minted cemetery reserved for war veterans and their spouses; it is only a decade and a half old and more than 2000 graves are already filled, for two reasons: the first is an actuarial one, as the veterans from earlier conflicts grow older and die of old age by the hundreds each day. (Sixteen million Americans served in World War II and the average age of a WWII veteran in 2011 was 92. Thus several hundred U.S. WWII veterans die each day.)
The second reason saddens me, however, as I have been of voting age since 1986 and several semi-official wars have been waged since then both by people for whom I voted and by those I voted against but whom I did not do enough to stop. From the city streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq, our two most recent wars, we added almost 7000 names to the rolls of the memorialized dead these last two decades.
and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirty-first season:
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