The Last Hurrah

Company D, whose tenacity the Nazis underestimated in World War II, just held its 60th reunion -- and likely its final one

September 25, 2006|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,sun reporter

She wasn't born when the battles took place, but by the looks of it, Gigi Beatty was more emotional than anyone at the Company D reunion. At the end of a table at the Old Country Buffet in Catonsville a few weeks ago, the 53-year-old Pittsburgh native kept trying to put her feelings into words. Time after time, she broke down.

It wasn't so much recalling the World War II heroics of her late father, George Wagner Jr., that brought her to tears, though she's fiercely proud of him. In 1945, Wagner lost his spleen pulling a comrade in the Ozark Division's 405th Infantry out of the path of a German tank.

Nor was it that her dad, a machine-gunner, wasn't there to enjoy this, the 60th consecutive reunion of Company D, a heavy-weapons unit that played a key role in one of the war's most daring and pivotal operations, the crossing of the Roer River one frigid night that same year. Wagner, who survived the war, died in 1995.

No, as Beatty dabbed at her eyes with a paper napkin, stealing glances at the eight elderly men enjoying their suppers, she strained for the right words to describe what it meant to her to be seeing the end of an era.

"I started going to these [reunions] when I was a toddler," she said, her eyes red. "These guys were surrogate grandparents to my own children. ... We're one big, extended family.

"I'll never, ever forget what we've been celebrating all these years. It kills me to know this [reunion] is going to be the last one."

In 1945, after Allied forces had penetrated Adolf Hitler's defenses at Normandy, France, after they'd fended off the immense German offensive at the Battle of the Bulge, the Fuehrer resolved that the invaders would never conquer his "Fatherland." He set up ferocious defenses along the fabled "Siegfried Line" to defend Germany. That winter, men like the ones here at the Old Country Buffet effected the violent crossing of the frigid, roiling Roer River.

George Kessel recalls that night. He's the white-haired, gray-stubbled gentleman in the black-and-gold "Proud to Be A Veteran" cap, sipping the Diet Coke. At first, it's hard to envision the daring of a man who, 60 years ago, spent six months on the move behind enemy lines, spotting and charting enemy targets so his colleagues - the 100 or so men of Company D - could hit them with heavy mortar fire.

Kessel, 83, can't hear well anymore, but his memory is sharp as a bayonet's edge.

"The [Roer crossing] started at 3 a.m.," says Kessel, a Catonsville resident who organized each Company D reunion since 1972, including this year's, and the only man to make all 60. "The artillery we threw at them was unbelievable - so much that the sky was completely lit up, like the middle of day."

Through acrid plumes of smoke, the Germans - who had widened the Roer by detonating an upriver dam - spent the early morning of Feb. 23, 1945, bombing and strafing the invading U.S. divisions. By sunrise, Allied engineers had spanned it with a pair of footbridges. It was the beginning of the end for the Nazis.

To historians such as Joseph Balkoski, author of Beyond the Beachhead, a study of D-Day, the Roer crossing was "an incredibly daring operation and an impressive achievement."

That's especially true given that the entire 102nd Division - the "Ozark Division" of which Company D was a part - had been created almost from scratch just two years before.

"I met some German soldiers after the war," says Leon Russell, 87, who won a battlefield commission - that is, instant promotion from enlisted to officer status - leading one of Company D's machine-gun platoons. "They said, `We were told you were a "green" [inexperienced] outfit, and that you'd [give up] under heavy fire [at the Roer River]. But y'all kept coming.'"

A broad-shouldered Dallas native with a heavy drawl, Russell flashes a smile. "I always thought it was safer to keep moving than to get pinned down," he says.

Such pluck came naturally to men called to duty when the Army revived the 102nd Division, an outfit that was founded during the First World War as a reserve unit meant to draw recruits from Missouri and Arkansas. It existed only on paper until September 1942, when it was called to life - and not just in the Ozark region.

Russell's first memory of Camp Maxey, their northeast Texas training ground, was of meeting a skinny kid with a Jersey accent named Joe "Doc" DeFelice.

"Probably 60 percent [of the 102nd] came from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey," Russell says. "At the first reunion I went to, I thought, `What is this, a meeting of the Mafia?'"

Death or illness has claimed most by now - the reunions once drew up to 80 people - but the eight vets who have made it to Catonsville bear out his point. Kessel grew up in New Jersey. Bernie Rainey, 84, who first hosted a reunion in 1947, and John Cacciavillano, 83, drove down together from Pennsylvania. Mike Millan, 88, a former lieutenant, and Jim Philbin, 80, are Marylanders.

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