Monday, May 30, 2011

What Are You Doing This Memorial Day?

Olivia is enjoying blueberry pancakes (or panpakes, as Olivia calls them.)

We went to visit Kev's family this past weekend for Kristina's high school graduation and celebratory par-tay!

We also got to spend a lot of time with Kev's grandpa, George, seeing as we did enjoy a guest room at his "retirement community for active adults!"

Over breakfast our first morning amongst the active seniors, Grandpa introduced us to a strikingly tall, thin woman (her name has left me) that had (what I think was) a thick German accent. She was instantly welcoming and so sweetly affectionate to Olivia.

As it turns out, this tall, sweet woman was living in a section of France at the same time that Grandpa was there fighting in WWII.

She held Grandpa's hand in both of hers and smiled at him as she and Grandpa stood beside our breakfast table, and she told us that the Germans were "so bad," and she was so "happy to see the Americans."

I got this surprising lump in my throat as I sat and listened and watched. I think it's heart-touchingly amazing that these two people were in the same place at the same time (on the other side of the globe almost 70 years ago) witnessing the same terrible war, and, now they enjoy peace and happiness together in the same retirement community in Georgia. It's truly a lovely thing.

I find myself drawn to stories of WWII--I can't really explain it. That's why I find Grandpa to be such an extraordinary human being. He doesn't share his war stories very often, but when he does, I find myself hanging on every word.

While we enjoyed the sunshine out on the back deck at Kev's parents' house during Kristina's graduation party, Grandpa went through his war binder with me. It's a three-ring, black binder that a friend of his put together--one for each of his three children. It's full of stories that Grandpa has written of his time in WWII and newspaper articles written almost 70 years ago that mention Grandpa or news about his battalion. I soaked up his stories while soaking up the sun and enjoyed every minute as he recalled some pretty amazing memories.

The following article featured Grandpa back in 2008 and recalls his role in the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944. This is just one (but a very important one) snapshot into Grandpa's life all those years ago.

So, this Memorial Day, I am saluting Grandpa, Mr. George Anderson--a man that is truly fascinating to me.


Brigade Quartermasters, Ltd. - Field Gear

18 February 2008

George Anderson Was A BAR Man

The line of infantry had moved steadily from the farm road across the field and into the woods, when suddenly on the left side George Anderson, a twenty-one year old BAR man, wheeled around and began firing. It was Christmas Day.

The scene was the Battle of the Bulge, the decisive World War II showdown with the German Army in December 1944. Anderson, a native of Pittsburgh, was not called BAR man because he hung out in honky tonks or smoky saloons. Rather, he was carrying the big Browning Automatic Rifle or BAR.

The BAR is a formidable 19-pound firearm, a forerunner to modern day assault rifles such as the AK-47 or M-16. Only a few were dispersed in the infantry units of that era; most soldiers carried the M-1 Garand.

Because the weapon could fire up to 650 rounds per minute with an effective range of 600 yards, a soldier with a BAR was an early target in a fire fight, something Private First Class Anderson didn’t know when he volunteered to be his squad’s BAR man. And though he had volunteered, Anderson was hardly an “ideal match” for the big rifle, given his 120 pounds.

“I carried twelve magazines of twenty rounds each, plus three to four bandoleers of ammunition,.” Anderson said. “In addition, I usually carried four hand grenades. At one time I calculated that I carried approximately 50 pounds of weapons and ammunition.”

Anderson is usually reluctant to talk about himself and his part in the war. After much prodding from friends, he recently reminisced about his combat experiences in General George Patton’s Third Army.

He had dropped out of college to enlist because he felt called to get into the fight that was raging everywhere in the world. He turned down chances to be a commissioned officer because he thought he would be sent back to school instead of the conflict.

Anderson is quick to say that he was no hero and did nothing unusual in the war—nothing that thousands of others didn’t do. He repeatedly states that he was a typical grunt that was “just doing his job” lugging his BAR around Europe.

Nevertheless, his friend French Bell says the 84-year-old Anderson’s story needs to be told, along with those of others like him: “George is part of ’The Greatest Generation,’ “Bell said. “They were a truly remarkable group of people. They destroyed the AXIS war machines and safeguarded our homeland during its darkest hours. In my book they are all heroes.”

Bell, a member of the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association, once invited Anderson to be his guest at a luncheon meeting with the group. Bell introduced Anderson and briefly described his role in the Battle of the Bulge. When he finished, the entire group gave Anderson a standing ovation.

After his discharge from the Army in January 1946, as a staff sergeant, Anderson finished his B.S. Degree in Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie-Mellon University. In a few years he would form his own company which manufactured a variety of industrial flow metering instruments. Some of Anderson’s instruments have been used in the space program to measure propulsion units.

He married his wife Susan in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1946 and together they reared three children: Gary, Linda, and Carol. Anderson sold his company and retired in Peachtree City in 1997. Susan passed away three years later. Friends say he loved his wife very deeply and that she profoundly influenced his spirituality.

When Anderson looks back to that Christmas 63 years ago in Belgium, he explains that the Third Army had been sent to relieve the 101st Airborne Division which was surrounded by Germans in Bastogne. Anderson’s company had lined up along a farm road and had started across a field toward a wooded area when they came under mortar attack. Despite suffering several casualties, the group pressed on into the woods.

“I hadn’t gone more than ten yards into the woods when I spotted a small group of men in their white camouflage suits off to my left.” Anderson said. “ I blazed away with my BAR, then paused momentarily to call and point them out to my colleagues off to my right. This was obviously the group of Germans who were spotting and directing the mortar fire when we first started out.”

Anderson’s platoon continued into the woods while another platoon dealt with the few enemy still standing after the short skirmish. They broke into a small clearing where they were able to stop for awhile—a pause that Anderson desperately needed because he was suffering from dysentery, a common malady in the austere conditions of combat. Soon the company commander ordered the men to cross a second field about 750 yards in width. After entering the field, the unit encountered heavy machine gun fire and the soldiers dove onto the ground.

“ If anyone had told you that there were enemy on the other side of an open field shooting at you with rifles and machine guns, and you were supposed to walk boldly across this field in the face of this fire, “ Anderson said, “you would say they were off their rocker, but this was what we were to do. There was no artillery support to try to pin the Germans down. Neither were there any tanks.” The company had been unable to link up with an armored unit during the operation as previously planned.

“The orders were called to move out. Everyone got up and started to move forward again, “ Anderson said. “ The line to my right was falling back. This is serious because when you are attacking and the enemy is hidden in the woods, you simply fire from the hip. You are not aiming at anything in particular, just hoping that firing in their direction will possibly keep their heads down. If anyone is in front of you while you are firing from the hip, there is always the risk of hitting your own men. I remember turning to my right and calling and waving for the men to move forward.”

“All of a sudden, BOOM! Someone hit me with a ball bat. That’s about what it was like. Although a rifle or machine gun bullet is relatively small, it travels at a very high velocity,” Anderson said “As a result, it packs a tremendous wallop. It slammed me face down onto the ground into the snow.”

Anderson had been shot through the neck. Miraculously, the bullet had not hit his spine, his windpipe, his esophagus, or any of his vital arteries, although he was bleeding heavily. The bullet had hit him under his ear and passed out the back of his neck, barely missing the spine.

“I guess that I lost consciousness for only a few moments.” Anderson said, “ I sort of cocked my head a little as best I could and said a little prayer. I can still pretty much remember how it went even after 63 years. I said ‘Well, God I guess I’ll be with you in a little bit. That’s okay. I’m ready. But be with Mom and Pop, Sue, Bob and Mil. Don’t let them grieve too much.”

But someone upstairs was listening; it was not Anderson’s day to die. Fortunately, medics soon appeared. They rendered basic emergency aid, helped him to his feet, and pointed him in the general direction of the Battalion Aid Station. Then Anderson was left alone to fend for himself while the medics went to help other wounded soldiers. He managed to stagger toward the rear in search of more help.

Eventually a tank crew spotted Anderson and gave him and some other wounded soldiers a ride to the aid station. It had been one hell of a Christmas Day. Every soldier in his squad had been wounded or killed. A week later, after short stays at various field medical facilities, he was admitted to a well-equipped hospital near Paris, where he would recover from the wound and his chronic dysentery.

Anderson had earned the Purple Heart, but the war was not over for him. He spent four weeks in the hospital and then he was referred to a physical re-conditioning unit which was to strengthen him so he could rejoin the fight. He was an experienced infantry soldier who was still needed at the front. He was a BAR man.

In spite of his brush with death, nowadays Anderson can smile about some of his lighter moments as a World War II BAR man. He recalls a Thanksgiving Day incident when artillery rounds began falling, and he had to make a quick dash for his foxhole. He was soon reminded that weapons designer John Browning had invented a fairly long rifle at 47.8 inches.

“My BAR had been left in the foxhole leaning upright in the corner.” Anderson said, “ Since the BAR is quite long, it extended above the ground level by 12 inches or more. Just as an artillery barrage came in, I took two steps and made a flying leap into the foxhole. As fate would have it, I caught the muzzle of the BAR just above my groin. My momentum carried me and the BAR to an upright position where I hung balanced momentarily before falling down into the hole”

“ Ouch! To say it hurt is putting it mildly.” Anderson said, “However, no damage was done and in a little while things were okay again. My friend Danny Long and I had another little Thanksgiving Day laugh about the sight of me hanging momentarily on the end of my BAR.”

Anderson laughs about another incident that happened in France. His unit was on the offensive, and the Germans were in retreat. He said, “We didn’t get off too early one morning, out across some farm fields as usual. We had gone no more than a few hundred yards when we stirred up some rabbits that were running ahead of us.”

“Following behind the rabbits were quite a number of soldiers carrying fully loaded rifles. Guess what?” Anderson said. “As might be expected of a bunch of 18 and 19 year old GIs, they started shooting at the rabbits. Our captain put an end to that in a hurry. He correctly reminded the guys that our troops ahead of us would think they were being attacked from the rear.”

While there is humor in some of Anderson’s wartime situations, boredom, death and destruction were more the norm. The death of a green recruit named Henry in a friendly-fire training episode made a lasting impression on him. Anderson had befriended the youngster and promised that he would “take care of him.”

In a small French village, Anderson was looking directly at an elderly woman when a German artillery round exploded where she stood, immediately killing her. “The explosion of the shell knocked me from the open doorway where I was standing, well down the hallway,” Anderson said “But I didn’t get a scratch. Just another of the many, many cases during my service on the front lines that God had decided ‘not yet’.”

Anderson’s faith in God helped sustain him throughout his lifetime and especially in the war because like everyone else every time he went into combat, he could reasonably expect to be killed. A devout Christian since childhood, his family had a Scottish Presbyterian background. As an adult, he and his family had worshipped with different denominations depending on what churches were available locally and his career moves. Anderson credits his late wife Susan with steering him toward Anglicanism as she had been raised in the Anglican tradition in her native Belfast, Ireland.

At age 83 Anderson was confirmed in the Anglican Church by Bishop David Bena of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. As a charter member of All Saints Anglican Church in Peachtree City, he regularly attends services twice weekly.

Fellow church member French Bell said of Anderson, “I think George and all World War II veterans I’ve met are self-effacing and modest about their accomplishments and experiences in combat. They never bring up the subject unless you have approached them about it. He never wants people to go out of their way for him but is always deeply appreciative of any little pleasantry he experiences. ”

“George loves being around our parishioners,” said Bell “especially the veterans in our church no matter what conflict, branch of service, or experience. He likes good books, is well read, and writes well. He organizes his World War II Company reunions. A true gentleman.”

Another parishioner, Phil Kelley, said that when Anderson was recovering from a knee replacement a year ago it was clear that he was an old soldier. “He didn’t complain and pushed himself to get back to normal. Soon, he was walking with very little help from a cane.”

Anderson is part of a vanishing breed: good citizen-soldiers that went to war decades ago and “just did their jobs.” In doing their jobs, they preserved their homeland and made the nation what it is today.

George Anderson doesn’t pretend to be a hero or anything but what he was. He was a BAR man. Those who know him say God bless him and all others like him.

Top: Anderson was confirmed in the Anglican Church at the age of 83 by Suffragan Bishop David Bena of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. His faith helped him through combat in World War II.
Middle: George Anderson carried the big Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) in combat during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, where he was wounded. Usually reticent about the war, he recently shared memories.

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