Today marks the 73rd anniversary of V-E Day, when World War II ended in Europe with the utter defeat of the Nazi regime.
That military conflict is the one with which I most closely connect, primarily because, as my interest in history developed, most of the books I read tended to be about that war. Although I grew up during the Vietnam War, it was too current for many books to have been written about it when I was developing my love of reading. Besides, I had an uncle who was directly engaged with the earlier war in Europe, and I saw his military souvenirs from that conflict. As an adult, I became interested in tracing his footsteps through that war in an attempt to learn as closely as I could where he had been and what he experienced.
Although the infamous fire in the St. Louis record depository destroyed his (and thousands of other servicemen’s) military records, I have been able to piece together enough through the history of the units he was part of to get a pretty good idea of the path he trod.
Uncle Dillon Summers was inducted into the U.S. Army in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, as part of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion (patch shown here), 3rd Armored Division, First Army, under General Omar Bradley. He trained in armored warfare at Camp Polk, Louisiana, and the Desert Training Center in California and then had advanced artillery training at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. On September 3, 1943, he embarked for England with the 3rd Armored Division aboard the S.S. Shawnee. He got further training in Warminster, England, before landing on Omaha Beach on June 25, 1945, D-day + 19. The 391st AFA began firing on the Germans the next day.
Dillon was a tank driver for artillery forward observers (FOs) of Combat Command B (CCB). FOs moved out in front of the main lines, identified enemy targets, and called in 155 mm artillery strikes against them. As such, he was in constant danger. He was involved in the Battle for St. Lo; Operation Cobra, the breakout from the bocage, or hedgerow country of Normandy; the closing of the Falaise Gap; the drive into Belgium; the breaching of the Siegfried Line; the crossing of the Rhine near Cologne; and the liberation of the concentration camp at Nordhausen/Dora Mittelbau, where the Nazis used slave labor to make their V-2 rockets.
As best I can ascertain, combat for Uncle Dillon’s unit ended on April 24, 1945, when CCB was relieved by the 9th Infantry Division and went into a period of rest and maintenance in the vicinity of Sangershausen. I assume that he was still there on May 8, 1945, when they received word of V-E Day. (On May 12, the unit moved to occupy Neu-Isenburg, a sector south of Frankfurt. They moved again on August 14 to a sector between Stuttgart and Nuremberg.)
Although I can trace (with some frustrating gaps in information) his general steps throughout his active combat duty, I have no idea what his reaction was to the end of hostilities. Was it elation? Was it a heavy sigh of relief? Was it an anticlimactic shrug? I’ll never know. I only know that what he witnessed firsthand changed him, and he never (in my hearing anyway) talked about it.
But the United States clearly won that war, unlike the Vietnam War, from which we merely withdrew to allow the enemy to walk into and seize their original objective virtually unopposed. Maybe that is another reason I feel such an affinity for the history of World War II: it was a clear, decisive victory.
Be that as it may, we all owe a deep debt of gratitude to those who fought in World War II, whether in Europe or the Pacific theaters and whether on the front line of battle, as my uncle did, or in the far-off and virtually unknown theaters of relative inactivity, such as the Aleutians (see my article “The Forgotten Theater: The Aleutians Campaign” in World at War, June-July 2018, which, I learned this past weekend, is available at Barnes & Noble). That generation is fast passing from us, and we should both learn as much as we can from them and express our gratitude before they are all gone and we lose that opportunity.
Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson