Veterans fear dimming of glory in Memorial Stadium's twilight

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 08, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The nation embraced Paul Wiedorfer and put his name on a medal. But Wiedorfer wants to talk about the guys who never came home. The Germans threw up their arms and surrendered to Wiedorfer. But he and five old friends wonder if the governor and the mayor will do the same.

History moves in funny ways. Nearly half a century since its close, some who served in World War II wonder how much value their sacrifice still holds. Wiedorfer won the nation's highest military award, the Medal of Honor. Does it matter any more?

"Tell them what happened," says Daniel Brewster, the former U.S. senator who once commanded troops in the South Pacific.

"They don't want to hear all that stuff," Wiedorfer says.

"Don't be modest," says William Boucher III, the longtime Baltimore civic leader who also served overseas during the fighting.

They've gathered in front of Memorial Stadium, which got its name about four decades ago only because these same guys stormed Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro's office like the beach at Normandy and told him, "If you don't name it for the guys who died, we'll have 50,000 veterans demonstrating in front of City Hall."

"Remarkable," Ed Hanrahan, a marketing consultant and former Marine, is remembering now. "We handed Tommy a resolution, and he signed it. It took 30 seconds for him to agree. Things apparently don't happen that quickly any more."

He's joking. The debate over a name for the new baseball stadium has gone into extra innings now. Oriole Park or Camden Yards? Any hope yet for Babe Ruth Stadium? It comes down to the governor of Maryland and the owner of the Orioles, and neither wishes to talk about it in public.

And passed over, in all the shouting, is the name of the current ballpark and the idea behind it: never to forget those who sacrificed in war.

" 'Time will not dim the glory of their deeds,' " Hanrahan says, reading from the huge plaque on the Memorial Stadium facade. "We're not kidding about this. Those aren't empty words."

Not only time, but the shortness of memory, now threatens to dim their glory. Long ago, when the veterans confronted D'Alesandro, nobody needed reminders. Paul Wiedorfer had just come home from fighting across Europe. Danny Brewster had been in the assault waves on Guam and Okinawa. Tom Bailey and Bill Tutton, Ed Hanrahan and Bill Boucher and millions of others had come home to a nation eager to honor not only them but all those not lucky enough to make it back.

"Go ahead," Boucher says Friday afternoon. "Tell them."

He's talking about that Christmas day in the woods near Chaumont, Belgium, when Paul Wiedorfer took on the Germans all by himself.

Wiedorfer shuffles his feet a little on the Memorial Stadium parking lot. It's a long time since it happened over there in the war, and a kind of self-consciousness begins to set in: Do people care any more?

These men are not naive. They understand that time not only heals wounds but dims political muscle. They know the new ballpark will not be called Memorial Stadium. Contrary forces have already been set in motion. William Donald Schaefer wants to call it Camden Yards. Eli Jacobs wants Oriole Park.

But the vets are now asking Schaefer and Mayor Kurt Schmoke to name all the land surrounding the new stadium "Memorial Park," and they want to transport the great steel dedication on the current ballpark to the new location.

Nearly half a century since the war's end, they do not know how much political muscle they still have, how much recollection means to a nation whose memory bank is reduced to the length of television sound bites.

"We were bogged down," Paul Wiedorfer says. It's important for people to remember this stuff, so his old friends, standing in the sunlight on 33rd Street 47 years after the fact, are urging him on a little.

"Christmas Day, 1944," Wiedorfer recalls. "Snowing like hell. You had to be a little crazy, I guess. I remember charging into enemy fire. I remembering falling, slipping on the ice, and then I got up and lobbed a grenade into this machine gun nest, and then another, and then these Germans were yelling, 'I give up, I give up. . .' "

The language on his citation is a little more explicit. It declares that Wiedorfer, then a 24-year-old private who'd never been in battle before, "was advancing with his company across a clearing near Chaumont when they were met by heavy machine gun fire from two German positions dug in at the wood's edge.

"Wiedorfer, realizing his platoon could not advance until the enemy machine guns were destroyed, voluntarily charged alone, without protective cover of any kind.

"Miraculously escaping injury, Wiedorfer reached a point 10 yards from the first machine gun emplacement and hurled a grenade into it, killing three men manning the gun. Taking cover in the first emplacement, he began to attack the second position with his rifle. One of the enemy was wounded by his fire, and the other six immediately surrendered."

Moments later, 14 more German soldiers who had seen the action came out with their hands up and surrendered to the American private.

"A few minutes later," the citation goes on, "when his platoon leader and sergeant were wounded, Wiedorfer assumed command of the platoon and led it until the mission was successfully accomplished."

Are we still interested in this? Does it still carry enough weight to move a governor and a mayor? Does that plaque on the stadium on 33rd Street mean anything, or has time already dimmed the glory of their deeds?

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