Just shy of his 99th birthday, World War II tank commander Vernon Foster vividly recalls hellish battles in France and Germany, being blasted in the face by shrapnel, logging 2,600 miles in the five-man Sherman tank named for his wife, Dottie, and meeting President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But when he’s asked about being part of the the “greatest generation” — former news anchor Tom Brokaw’s term for those who came of age during the Depression and fought in World War II — he’s momentarily at a loss.
Going to war didn’t feel like a sacrifice, Foster said in an interview days before Veterans Day, but rather like a reflex.
“I guess I understand why they said it because there were so many of us in the military and we were volunteers,” said Foster in a gravelly voice. “Most guys wanted to go because they had heard so much about what Hitler had done.
“It’s like if you’re going out to plant corn. You just do it,” the lifelong Parkton farmer said.
Part of a disappearing generation remembered for its service and stoicism, Foster is among about 558,000 World War II veterans still living out of 16 million who served, according to federal statistics. He and fellow World War II veteran William Kruse are being honored Saturday night at a Veterans Day concert and fundraiser for Blind Industries and Services of Maryland and other nonprofits that work with veterans.
Aberdeen Proving Ground is sending a color guard to the event at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel.
“We want to have this connection with these World War II vets,” said Rick Scavetta, the military installation’s community relations officer. “We’re honored to be in the same room with them.”
Scavetta calls Foster “a hero” and “living history.”
With most living World War II veterans now in their 90s, museums, libraries and videographers are scrambling to chronicle their stories before it is too late.
“These are treasures, and World War II is a window that is quickly just becoming part of history books,” said Rich Polt, founder of Baltimore-based Acknowledge Media, which produces documentary-style movies to help families preserve legacies.
When Polt heard about Foster’s experiences, “to me it was important to be able to take advantage of the opportunity.” Polt interviewed Foster last year to capture audio for posterity “and afterwards, he pulled out some shoe boxes with photos.”
Foster shared his collection of black-and-white photos and letters home to his wife with The Baltimore Sun at his home surrounded by rolling farmland near Interstate 83.
“We’re on the Autobahn there,” the veteran said, pointing to a faded picture of himself and another soldier in front of a Nazi plane. Foster is smiling slightly in the photo — most likely taken in 1945 — and has his hand on the propeller.
The plane, among rows of others, was abandoned along the side of the German highway because the Nazis lacked fuel and pilots.
Foster, now with a cane and thinning white hair, points to another picture and says simply: “My tank.”
It was an M-4 Sherman — the U.S. Army’s most widely used tank in the war — with a crew that included a commander, gunner, loader, driver and assistant driver. Foster was commander and platoon leader with the 2nd Platoon, Company A, 714th Tank Battalion, part of the fabled 12th Division. The division was attached briefly to the command of Gen. George S. Patton Jr.
Foster’s unit saw heavy fighting in northeastern France, at Herrlisheim, in early 1945 when the Germans launched an offensive called Operation Nordwind aimed at cutting off Allied supply lines. The Germans dubbed the unit the “Suicide Division” for its fierce actions in that battle.
In the picture, white block lettering on the tank’s side reads “Dottie,” the name of his wife, who died 10 years ago after 64 years of marriage.
Foster wrote his wife scores of letters during down time inside the tank.
In one, written late in the war, he wrote in bold black ink that he had once vowed that his men would take no prisoners. But, the letter said, “when a bunch of men throw down their guns and throw their hands over their heads it is a different story.” He wrote that he stopped his men from shooting unarmed prisoners.
In 1944, he said, an artillery shell exploded above him, blasting shrapnel into his face. While most of the pieces were removed, he said, one shard couldn’t be dislodged because it would affect his vision, and it remains under the skin near his eye.
“They said, ‘Now you’ve got to take a couple days off. I took a few hours off,” said Foster, who earned the Purple Heart.
He got to meet Roosevelt while an Army liaison officer at Fort Knox in Kentucky.
“I’m wearing a .45 on my side and there all these Secret Service guys around, and as I walked close to the president, they all had their hands on their guns like this,” Foster said, his hands rubbing his torso.
Scavetta said Foster remains “sharp as a tack.” Foster recalls events with precision, smiling when he talks about his wife and his tank, in which he said he traveled 2,600 miles.
Last year, Foster visited Aberdeen Proving Ground and compared notes with active-duty tankers.
“The guys in the military view Vernon as a rock star,” said Stephen Belkoff, a longtime friend of Foster’s. But Belkoff said Foster “is a humble guy, and it takes a lot to squeeze it out of him.”
At Aberdeen, Foster sat atop an M1A2 Abrams tank — a far different generation than “Dottie,” with a lot more firepower.
“His war is so different from what we fight now. It’s what we see and hear about in movies,” said Scavetta, a former tanker.
“The technology is night and day when it comes to the equipment of the tank,” Scavetta said. “The similarity has less to do with the tank and more to do with the people you’re living with in small confines from all walks of life. You’re in an overseas environment and a dangerous environment, and that is replicated whether you’re with a Sherman or an M1. There is a bond that develops.”
Foster, who turns 99 on Nov. 20, shares the farmhouse with his son, Rick, and said he tries to help with the corn and other crops.
The veteran has arthritis in his legs.