Dedication sparks WWII memories

WAY BACK WHEN

Local vets' accounts shared in new book

May 29, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The dedication today of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington will no doubt be emotional as veterans and their families gather to contemplate and remember the horrific conflict that engulfed the world and consumed the lives of 400,000 Americans between 1941 and 1945.

Those who survived the war are old now, and their voices are being stilled as 1,100 of them slip away each day.

After nearly 60 years, many of them - called the Greatest Generation - are finally sharing their wartime experiences with family, friends and historians, who are anxious to preserve those experiences for posterity.

In her book, One Heartbeat: The History of the Boys' Latin School of Maryland, which will be published in September, Holly Lewis Maddux, a Baltimore writer, recalls the war's effect on the private school, then located on Brevard Street, near the Fifth Regiment Armory.

Norman Leidig, whose father owned Leidig's Confectionery on Frederick Road in Irvington, never made it to his senior year.

In late 1942, the draft age was lowered from 20 to 18. Leidig, who was allowed to complete his junior year, entered the Navy the following spring.

"Up to that point, the war did not affect me much," he told Maddux. "I just went on with my life and took it all in stride ... the rationing, the blackouts. But that came to an abrupt end when I turned 18 in January of 1943 and I was drafted.

"I was in the Navy for four years. I was on a ship-a seaman first class. I didn't see any action per se. I had one year of training and then headed over to the Pacific. There were thousands of ships there to invade Japan, to annihilate them, and then they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and it was over," he said.

Leidig, who is now retired, returned to Baltimore and worked as a baker, eventually owning Leidig's Bakery on Main Street in Ellicott City.

Edwin C.M. Cassard was class president and valedictorian of the Class of 1943, which had 13 seniors who were draftable.

Within months, Cassard was in the Army and, by the end of the summer of 1943, was bound for England. Serving with Maryland's famed 29th Division, he landed at Omaha Beach on June 7, 1944, in the second day's wave of troops that participated in the Allied invasion of Europe.

Cassard, who died earlier this year at 79, fought at the Battle of the Bulge and Huertgen Forest, two of the war's bloodiest battles.

"Within a couple of weeks we were fighting in northern France. We went to the Huertgen Forest. The battle fought there was the worst massacre of the war - and we were the ones being massacred. Of nine divisions that went in none of them got out of it - including mine. I was very fortunate. I got winged once - nothing serious," he told Maddux. "The Germans were well-armed and they knew everything that was going on in the forest. ... It was their forest."

The winter of 1944 was one of the worst in Europe in decades. Cassard recalled the unrelenting cold and being forced to sleep in foxholes - some soldiers were captured and others had to be hacked out of the permafrost.

"We did not have proper gear. It was absolutely terrible," he told Maddux.

Often, veterans relied upon humor to help wash away the searing memories and horror of war. Cassard told Maddux of marching up a hill in the Huertgen Forest and hearing the cheerful voice of Charles Ridgely calling from a foxhole.

"As I walked by ... he looked up and said, `Look at those flat feet, that must be Eddie Cassard. What are you doing here?'"

After several minutes, Cassard began moving again, and had only walked 50 yards when an enemy shell tore into Ridgely's foxhole, killing four soldiers instantly. Ridgely survived, but was left a paraplegic.

He witnessed other horrors, including the liberation of the Wobbelin concentration camp - known as the "Gates of Hell" - in Germany that housed 2,500 malnourished German and Polish political prisoners. Liberators discovered hundreds more buried in shallow graves.

Cassard was later promoted to platoon leader and decorated with a Bronze Star for bravery and a Purple Heart.

He returned to Baltimore and went to work in 1952 for TV Guide. He was regional manager for advertising sales in Washington when he retired in 1989.

Reflecting on his life after the war, Cassard told Maddux, "I had a great career, and I loved it, and I've had a good life."

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