(Editor's Note: Thanks to resident, regular blogger, and reader, Tracy Buck, for submitting this story).
“When he left for basic training, I knew he wasn’t coming home.”
And my husband Ron’s Grandpa Hollenbeck was right when he made this statement.
As the 68th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge approaches, memories, and pain, return. Many men lost their lives in World War II. Both of my parents served in that war, my dad as a Marine in the Pacific, my mom in the WACs, and Ron’s dad was a navigator on a B-24. They never talked about it, but until he died, Ron’s dad carried a piece of shrapnel in his pocket that missed his head by an inch.
We were in Washington D.C., in 2004 when the World War II Memorial was dedicated, and I talked to as many veterans as I could. I think one fighter pilot, just 17 when he piloted his P-51 Mustang, summed it up best when he told me: “They were the worst years of my life, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”
I suppose every family has these types of stories, but ours has a twist. It’s one of the rare happenings that if people talked more, maybe wouldn’t be so rare.
The facts are there. Corp. Donald Hollenbeck, Ron’s uncle – his mom’s brother - won a Silver Star. He sacrificed his life because he could. All because his halftrack broke down, and Hitler decided to try one last offensive at the same time. Here are the statistics:
Corporal Donald Hollenbeck
526th Armored Infantry Battalion
United States Army
Died Dec. 18 1944 (Battle of the Bulge)
Buried Henri-Chapelle, Belgium
Awarded Purple Heart and Silver Star Medals
I happened on the story in the 1980s while watching a very undersung program called “The Brave Rifles.” There he was, Ron’s Uncle Donald, on the TV screen. At first I couldn’t believe it, then I knew it was the same face I’d walked by so many times in our family-picture collage on the upstairs landing.
“We knew he was in some kind of documentary,” Ron’s mom, Dorothy, said. “My parents were asked to submit a photo of him. But we didn’t talk about it.”
So, now you will hear it, too. Uncle Donald was in charge of a large piece of artillery, mounted on a halftrack. The track came loose, so he stopped at a bridge in Belgium. The engineers were frantically wiring the bridge to keep the German advance from using it. And here came a hundred Panzers.
Donald volunteered to turn his lone artillery piece on the Panzers and slow them down. It was a suicide mission and he knew it. But it worked. While all the Panzers focused on him, the American engineers blew up the bridge, at the same moment two of the Panzers hit home. And he was never coming back. He’s buried in Belgium, one white cross in a vast sea of them, unmoving and unmovable.
Dorothy visited his grave for the first time a couple of years ago, she's now in her late 80s. She cried, she said, and wondered how her life would have been different if her older brother had “come home.” For sure, she thought, the sadness that her parents carried like a shroud the rest of their long lives would not have been there.
But this story has a twist, as I promised. And here it is.
My uncle, married to my Aunt Betsy, was a first lieutenant then, attached to the quartermaster corp that supplied Gen. Patton. Lt. Col. Elmer A. Jestila, whose parents immigrated from Finland and landed in Upper Michigan, met Aunt Betsy while she worked at Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix in the early 1940s. He wanted to be a flyer, but turned out to be color-blind, so instead he joined the Army. Like a million others, they married, then he went “overseas.”
He never talked about the war, either. We knew his feet were frostbitten during The Bulge, and he suffered from poor circulation the rest of his life. Uncle Elmer died in 1996, and Aunt Betsy, 90, has forgotten his unit, and even where she put his military photo, cap at a jaunty angle, taken before he left for Europe.
But, back in the 1980s when I saw the program about Uncle Donald, I called Jane, their daughter. Bursting with the wonder of it, I couldn’t wait to tell her. And, while I was on the phone, she told her dad.
There was a long silence, then Uncle Elmer said: “Was it at such-and-such a bridge? Dec. 18? Were there engineers wiring the bridge?”
“Yes!” I said.
“I saw him. I was heading the truck convoy trying to get across the bridge so the supplies wouldn’t fall into German hands.”
“But we got across that bridge, right before a Panzer got him.”
“Everyone there knew it was a suicide mission.”
The anniversary of Uncle Donald’s death is Dec. 18.