Commentary: Never forget the squadmates who died on WWII battlefield

By Seymour I. "Spence" Toll

As Memorial Day has evolved since the Civil War, our nation celebrates it to remember and honor those who died while serving in the armed forces. At the national level, the service itself is more important than the cause. It doesn't matter if the sacrifices were made during World Wars I and II, in Korea and Vietnam, or in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whenever and wherever those deaths occurred, they offer a unifying theme of the spirit: Honor those whose service cost their lives.

That honor is expressed from the perspective of two vast groups, those who have served in the armed forces and those with solely civilian lives. Within the first group are those who have experienced and survived combat, and that is the perspective from which I view Memorial Day.

At the age of 19, I was a U.S. Army combat infantryman who had been wounded in the Luxembourg Ardennes on Dec. 16, 1944. That was the first night of the Battle of the Bulge. I was serving in a 28th Infantry Division squad of combat riflemen, and we had been ordered to defend some woodland in territory our division was occupying.

Since I was in the 28th as a quite recent replacement for a rifleman who had been killed or wounded in earlier combat, my fellow soldiers and I were still relative strangers to each other. However brief our familiarity, though, we were now undergoing the bonding experience that combat can be. Although that was 71 years ago, the length of time has never weakened my vivid memory of the experience we shared that night. It's a memory both factual and spiritual, encompassing both body and soul.

We had been ordered to defend a woodland that faced a valley, and on the other side of that valley was our Nazi enemy. It was Europe's coldest autumn in 30 years. The temperature that night was 14 degrees. Because our Army hadn't foreseen that freezing weather, we had inadequate clothing to protect us from deep and continuing physical pain.

To minimize ourselves as targets, we were belly down on the ground. Thus we couldn't walk around to warm up a bit. After some time sprawled there, while keeping our heads raised to look across the silent valley, we were suddenly threatened by the first sounds and flames of what turned out to be a massive, lethal mortar attack. With murderous efficiency, the barrage worked its way across the valley, closing in on our position. Shrapnel from bursting shells ripped the ground that we had been ordered to defend.

Our rifle squad had watched in silence as the distance between us and the exploding shells shrank. Soon enough, there was a hellish shower of shrapnel bursting down from the treetops. As that murderous spray saturated us and tore open my right forearm, our silence suddenly turned into screams of terror and the agonizing cries of wounding. Some of our victims could still be heard moaning long after the bursting shells moved beyond us; the silence of others came with their sudden deaths. In my terror, I kept thinking they were dying for all of us.

Spiritually, the immediate result of the attack was the overwhelming fear of death and a hopeless sense of being unable to avoid it. For me, the deepest, ceaseless spiritual experience began with squad-mate bonding and increased with the realization of my incredibly good fortune to have been spared death. Our bonding was an unspoken certainty. Although we were still relative strangers, we had served together enough for us to feel we were mutually reliable, however hazardous the circumstances.

Not long after the shelling had passed, I was receiving first aid. The medic who struggled to get me off the front line earned my deepest gratitude, a feeling that seized me again when we reached our first-aid station. That was a war-battered barn in which most of the wounded were enemy troops receiving the same conscientious medical care we Americans were getting.

After my medic had stopped the bleeding and removed shrapnel from my forearm, he lifted the metal helmet from my head and showed me how it was like a pincushion of shrapnel that never quite reached my skull. My gratitude for the care I received in that barn would apply as well to the American Army hospitals and staff that, for the next six months, would treat me in Luxembourg, Paris, England, and the United States.

My immediate gratitude for having been spared death and rescued medically was echoed by my beloved parents. With me in battle in Europe and their other son - my older brother - a Naval officer experiencing combat in the Pacific, our parents, like countless others, lived in ceaseless dread of losing a child or children. However serious my wound, I was still a living son - and home.

As a nation, we set aside time on Memorial Day to remember and honor those who died serving in the armed forces. For me as an individual, it is a holiday on which I can never forget the squad mates who died for us, as well as our survivors and all those Army staff who helped me manage my wounding and get on with a life that has been incredibly fortunate.

Seymour I. "Spence" Toll is a Philadelphia lawyer and author. spentoll@aol.com