Every year since World War II ended, veterans of the 79th Infantry Division have gathered on the last weekend of July to reminisce. Even more than a half-century later, the comradeship established during combat comes back to life.
"There is no closer group than an infantry outfit," said Warren Matter of Deltona, Fla.
Carroll County Commissioner Richard T. Yates organized the 52nd reunion that drew about 200 veterans of his 314th regiment, part of the 79th Division, to Baltimore this weekend.
"We are a brotherhood of men who share the same experience and nightmares," Yates said.
"There are always a few less every year, only about 700 of us now," said Harry Farrell, who drove from San Jose, Calif. "But these are guys who remember the same way I do."
Their reunion itinerary included visiting seafood restaurants, the Inner Harbor and the Liberty ship John Brown, which is being restored at a Canton pier. But most of their time is devoted to remembering.
"War makes you closer to these guys than any other," said Julius Caracci of Sharpsville, Pa. "You had to depend on them to keep you alive."
Many of these men were wounded, nearly all were awarded the Purple Heart and most lost a close friend or a brother in battle.
"My brother and I crossed the Rhine River together," said Edward Elsea of Marshall, Mo. "I was wounded on March 24, , and was recovering in Holland when he was killed on April 9."
Elsea said he might make the trip to Kansas City from his home in rural Missouri to see "Saving Private Ryan," a World War II movie that opened last week. But, he said, he doubts it will come close to capturing his experience.
"This was real people shooting at you," said Glendon Voorhees of Cincinnati. "You didn't lob a grenade and go home. They threw them back at you."
The 314th saw 248 straight days of combat, battling the enemy through France and into Germany, and lost nearly half its original 5,000 troops.
"We had the most consecutive days of combat with the enemy," Matter said.
"We must have had a poor union, no double time," Farrell added.
Jokes like Farrell's flow freely, as do memories. The regiment landed in Normandy a few days after D-Day and was the first to reach the Rhine River nearly nine months later.
"Maybe if we had had a [Sylvester] Stallone or [an Arnold] Schwarzenegger, it would not have taken so long and I would not have had to go," Voorhees said.
J. J. Witmeyer Jr., the group's historian, said the troops were called the floating reserves because they replaced the soldiers who died landing in Normandy. He remembers 19-year-old officers ordering men into combat.
"I look at 19-year-olds today and wonder if they could make those decisions," Witmeyer said. "People today just don't know what we went through. You would be hard-pressed to find these lessons in schools."
People often ask him what motivated the troops. He answers patriotism, camaraderie and pride in the unit.
"We could do nothing less for each other," Witmeyer said. "We trained with each other and we all owed each other. We would do anything we could for each other."
Norman Kellman of Hollywood, Fla., brought his adult son and a scrapbook filled with letters and photos to the reunion.
"I think he comes to check up on my stories," said Kellman, who remembers the first time that his son came to a reunion years ago and said, "Geez, dad, it's all real."
"When these men get together, you hear more of the quirky and ironic stories, not the horrors of war," said his son, Bob Kellman.
At the height of the fighting in a small town near the German border, Kellman found a camera with film and someone took a photo of his platoon members. He gave the film to the signal corps, but it took 18 months for the picture to catch up with him in Munich.
"Without a word, the picture describes the lot of the combat infantryman more than anything else I have seen: dirty, exhausted, tattered and dinged-up but still willing to grin, if given a half a chance," said James Flannery of Elizabeth City, N.C.
Five years ago, Yates and about 100 veterans returned to France to dedicate a monument in La Haye du Puits, which honored those who had lost their lives there.
It was the second visit for Robert Norton of Ashtabula, Ohio. He had traveled to the small town in 1973. Like other visitors, he signed the mayor's guest book that year, below the name of another veteran, who later became an astronaut: Alan B. Shepard, who died last week.
Pub Date: 7/26/98