To the Greatest Generation

Mary Ann Kearns - John Berry

My father’s experiences in Word War II have been a constant source of pride and interest for my family. To say my life and that of my younger brother, John, literally depended on his survival through some of the bloodiest and deadliest battles in Europe is the absolute truth. In one battle, only he and another member of his company were left standing. Had he fallen, we would not be here today.

So it’s no surprise that John became a World War II history buff and actively sought information on the Battle of the Bulge and the Huertgen Forest, both battles that Dad took part in as a member of the 28th Infantry Division, sometimes called “The Bloody Bucket,” a reference to the Red Keystone patch of the outfit.

John, — who happens to be Dad’s namesake and whose son is also, has made finding out as much as he can about those battles and Dad’s involvement in the war a mission. He reads everything he can find on the subject and at one point made friends with a 80-plus-year-old veteran who served in the same battles and now lives in New Orleans. The two would talk for hours on the phone.

About a dozen years ago a friend of John’s received an e-mail from a man he met in Germany who told that a GI’s body had just been found in the Huertgen Forest. More than half a century later, he was still wearing his helmet, his rifle was nearby. Both John and his friend were visibly moved by the news.

With the Memorial Day holiday upon us, I asked John then to write down his thoughts for me. I expected a column, a few lines maybe, but what I received was much more personal and more touching, a fitting tribute to a member of the Greatest Generation who was not only a father and husband but a hero and a patriot as well. I recently came upon the piece and was once again so touched by the piece that I thought it was worth sharing again.

Dear Dad,

I don’t know where the 25 years since we lost you have gone. It seems like just yesterday we were sitting in front of the TV together, laughing at “MASH.” So much has happened in our family I really don’t know where to begin.

We’ve lost so many people that we thought would be around forever — Aunt Jessie, Uncle Charles, Rick, Bill, Rita, Aunt Kate and Mom. So many good people, who much like you, died long before what we thought was “their time.”

When you passed away, we all missed you so much but we also knew how much you had suffered without a word of complaint or an outcry for sympathy. It was much the same for Mom. You two were always strong for us even when your bodies were weak and hurting. Your spirits and faith in the Lord were always strong.

Dad, I’m so sorry I didn’t take the time to listen to you when you finally felt at ease talking about the war. I was always in too big a hurry to get out and run with my friends instead of taking the time to listen about a war that ended before I was even born.

I know there’s no way to get that time back so I have tried to make up for it the only way I know how. Everything I can find to read on the Allied breakout from Normandy and the hedgerow fighting, the race across France and the liberation of Paris, the Huertgen Forest campaign and the Battle of the Bulge is not enough to make up for those lost years but this is how I try.

When you went into the hedgerow fighting, you quickly got your “baptism of fire.” When the Allied forces broke out of Normandy, it literally was a race to the German border. Everyone thought the war in Europe would be over soon and you would be home for Christmas.

Then came the Huertgen Forest. I’ve heard it referred to by so many names — the Death Factory, the Meat Grinder and the Green Hell. Division after division of Allied troops were thrown into the battle only to be decimated. How as many GIs made it out as did is beyond me. Everything I’ve read on the Huertgen only talks about how many good young men died in a battle with no clear-cut strategic objective. This is probably one of the most overlooked and otherwise forgotten major battles of the European Campaign.

After the 28th was pulled off the line in the Huertgen you were sent to a quiet sector to refit. This was, of course, the Ardennes Forest where your division along with a few others were stretched over a 75-mile front line area where there was supposedly very little or no enemy activity. No one knew the German Army was building strength in this area for a winter attack. Your division was dead center for the Dec. 16, 1944 attack which became well known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Most historical accounts of the Bulge only deal with the fact that the 101st AB was surrounded and besieged in Bastogne. Nothing is ever mentioned of the delaying action fought by the 28th ID and how several of its troops were part of the siege.

The winter of 1944-45 was the coldest in Europe in 50 years, yet you had no hope of being warm. Soldiers huddled in mud and water-filled foxholes. Hot meals and dry socks were unheard of but you made do with what you had. You couldn’t build a fire and risk giving out your position, yet you persevered.

Books and movies only tell part of a story and I am so very sorry I didn’t take advantage of receiving a first-hand account from someone who went through those terrible ordeals.

Your medals, the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and the one of which you were most proud, your Combat Infantryman’s Badge, speak volumes to me of how you faced your chosen duty. Going to a foreign country to fight for what you believed in while leaving a pregnant wife and two sons still in diapers at home says more to me than any author or Hollywood producer could ever give justice.

Dad, I wish I had said this 25 years ago when you could still hear it. I love you, I miss you and you will always be my hero. As long as I have breath in my body, your story will not go untold.

With love and respect,

Johnny

Mary Ann Kearns

John Berry