So near to grandeured is our dust,
So near to God is man;
That when duty calls to youth ‘thou must”!
The youth replied, “I can”. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Voluntaries.”*
*This stanza from the poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson was inscribed in the Forward of “Pictorial history of the 69th Infantry Division, 15 May 1943 to 15 May 1945” (1945), published in 1945.
On 12 February 1945, the 273rd Regiment of the 69th Infantry Division — part of the famed 12th Army Group commanded by General Omar Bradley — moved into a defensive position on the Siegfried Line east of the Meuse River in Belgium. My Grandpa was a Private in 3rd Battalion, Company M. He was 23 years old.
They arrived at the port of Southampton in England on 22 January 1945. A day later, they landed in Le Havre, France. It was freezing and gray as they ferried across the English Channel. Gramps was a deer hunter from rural Pennsylvania, so his platoon had appointed him sniper several months before. His job on the Channel was to shoot naval mines the Germans had deployed to protect Fortress Europe.
Imagine hitting a submerged object two feet in diameter 300 meters out from the bow of a transport ship in choppy water on an overcast day. Gramps was a crack shot; scores of deer had learned that the hard way in the forests of the Alleghenies.
In Belgium, just three weeks later, the 69th Division found the bulk of its ranks deployed in the Ardennes Forest, where the US Army had just suffered 89,500 casualties during The Battle of the Bulge. The dead lay stacked like cords of wood on either side of the roads. The shells of burnt tanks and wrecked cargo trucks littered the fields, silent monuments to the fallen.
The Germans would surrender just three months later, but in February of 1945, they were fanatically defending their beloved Reich from two massive armies — The Allies from the South and the West and the Russians from the North and the East. They were not going down without a fight.
One of the first mornings that Gramps was on the line, the Germans shelled his position. He immediately dove under a Deuce and a Half and waited for the world to stop exploding. He had been in the army for two years, but he was still green as the grass. He had no idea what to do.
After an eternity, the Germans stopped their barrage. Terrified, he crawled out from under the Deuce and a Half and stared at the forest around him. It was flattened and black.
His platoon sergeant stormed towards him, irate. He grabbed Gramps by the arm and turned him towards the truck. Its cargo bed was filled with ammunition and explosives. Miraculously, it had survived the barrage unscathed.
“God DAMMIT! Withers” his sergeant screamed. “If that didn’t fucking kill you, ain’t nothin’ gonna kill you!” He picked up Gramps’ helmet, shoved it into his chest, and stormed off.
My father was very proud of his involvement in World War II. He didn’t speak much about the war. The few times he did were when we were out in the woods of Pennsylvania, hunting deer. We’d meet up in the woods, start up a small fire to warm our hands, and he would recount his days with the 69th Division. I was always left with the feeling that there were more stories, but they likely could only be related to others who had shared the experience. — Tom Withers, 2001
Emmett Withers was born in Johnstown, a small burg 70 miles east of Pittsburg in Southwest Pennsylvania. He dropped out of the sixth grade to take care of his younger siblings when he was 12. He worked in the steel mills before he learned to shave.
He was 5’10 and carved from stone, with sinewy arms and a rattlesnake temper. He once beat a man half to death for kicking his pet dachshund. He was protective of family and distrustful of strangers. In early 1943, he enlisted to join the Air Corps. At the time he was married and living in Florida. He had volunteered to be a ball turret gunner on a B-17, because Death was something that happened to other people; Emmett Withers had no fear.
He trained for 12 months at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. In 1944, the build-up for Operation Overlord was in full effect, so he was reassigned to the infantry and shipped over to England. He had to leave his young wife and travel 6,000 miles across the Atlantic, this backwoods steel mill worker from the Alleghenies with a fifth-grade education. At the time he left to wage war on the Nazis, his eldest son was just two years old. His name was Donald. He would become my father.
Gramps never talked about the war, which is one of the reasons I know he was in the shit. When my brother and I were kids, he’d tell stories about things he found funny — the time he almost accidentally shot himself in the face, that story about hiding under an explosives-laden cargo truck during an artillery barrage, or when his company got divided in two, and the half that he was not part of got ambushed on patrol and every single man got killed.
Gramps had an odd sense of humor.
After he passed away, I started doing research about his military service. It wasn’t easy. In 1973, a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri destroyed 18 million military service files. Fortunately, my Uncle is a history buff and he had researched Grandpa’s military service.
My own research uncovered a piece of his history that he never revealed to either wife nor his children. I was living in St. Petersburg, Florida at the time, which happens to boast one of the largest Holocaust museums in the country.
At the end of the tour, there is a gigantic map that identifies the locations of every concentration camp in Nazi Germany and Occupied Europe. Next to each area was the patch of the military group that liberated them.
The insignia of the 69th Infantry Division looks like this:
Imagine my surprise when I saw it pinned next to Leipzig, Germany.
Leipzig is a city of half a million people about a 100 miles southwest of Berlin in Saxony. Its roots predate the Holy Roman Empire and it boasts several notable residents, including Carl Gustav Carus and Richard Wagner, whose anti-Semitic operas were a soundtrack of sorts for National Socialism.
On April 19, 1945, the 69th Infantry Division discovered Leipzig-Thekla, a subcamp of Buchenwald. It had been created in 1943 to supply labor for the German war machine. It housed 1,400 prisoners.
The day before, Waffen SS guards had set fire to the barracks and shot all the inmates who tried to escape. My Grandpa’s division rescued 100 survivors. It was later discovered that the Germans had burned alive 325 prisoners who were too weak or ill to support the war effort. Reports indicated that the 69th’s advance into Leipzig had prevented the guards from murdering 250 women at a nearby camp.
Leipzig fell after three days of intense fighting. It was the fifth city in Germany to fall to American forces. My Grandpa had 18 more days of combat to go before the Germans officially surrendered and Victory in Europe was declared.
The 69th lost over 380 men, with another 1,200 wounded. I’m sure my Grandpa knew many of them. I’m sure he counted some of them as friends.
After he died, I asked my Grandma if she knew how he had managed to survive when so many others didn’t. He wasn’t in the rear echelon. The man was on a Combat Team.
My grandma thought about it for awhile. “I suppose it was something he was used to,” she told me. “He grew up in the mountains. He grew up hunting. He used to go camping for days in the dead of winter. Those kids who were from cities — they just couldn’t help but get themselves killed. But your Grandpa was in his element over there. To him, there wasn’t much difference to him between a 10-point buck and a German.”
On 25 April 1945, elements of the 69th Infantry Division linked up with the 58th Guards Division of the Red Army outside the town of Torgau on the Elbe River. They were the first American unit to do so. They were only 80 miles from Berlin by that point, with less than two weeks to go before V-E Day was declared.
This was a historic event. The Russians, exhausted from years of sustained combat and casualties that numbered more than 20 million, were delighted. The Americans, many of whom had seen sustained combat in Europe for 11 months, were wary of their communist allies but nonetheless thrilled to join forces. To many, it heralded the end of hostilities in Germany.
The war ended on 8 May 1945. My Grandpa would sometimes tell stories about he guarded Berlin with Russians — never the most politically correct person, he’d say that they were some of the dumbest fools he had ever known. At that time though most Americans were concerned about the threat of communism, and he said that they all knew that it was just a matter of time before they were at war with one another.
Fortunately, that never happened.
Emmet Withers served until 17 January 1946. After the Germans surrendered, he was transferred to the 29th Infantry Division and received an Honorable Discharge. He earned the Bronze Star. the World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal and the European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two bronze stars. He was a steel mill worker from rural Pennsylvania with a fifth-grade education who helped save the world.
Before he left Germany, his CO offered him a commission and tried to convince him to stay. They offered a career in the military in post-war Germany, but he was sick of war, and he had a three-year-old son and a young wife he had not seen in three years. He settled in Tampa Florida, just a mile from MacDill Air Force Base, where he lived until his death in 1999.
Years later, my Grandpa earned his GED. He told my father it was the accomplishment of which he was most proud. He was married to my Grandma for 60 years. They raised three sons named Donald, Thomas, and David. They had grandchildren they adored, including me.
Donald, my father, was the first Withers to attend college. He is a graduate of the University of South Florida. He’s retired now, after a successful career as a CPA. He’s still married to my mom. They’ve been happily married for 45 years.
Grandpa passed on 10 January 1999. In May of that year, I earned a Master’s degree, making me the first in my family, though certainly not the last. I took a job at a military academy in St. Petersburg, where I taught English and History. Whenever I could, I’d teach my students about “The fighting 69th,” about the concentration camp at Leipzig, and I would tell them that in this country, even a rural steel mill worker with a fifth-grade education could help save the world.
Rest in Peace, Emmett Withers. We would all do well to follow your example. Do honest work. Marry the one you love. Raise your children right. And always stand up to evil.
This story was originally published in Medium on November 18, 2017. There is an audio version of it available as well.