MILESBURG — In the epilogue of the HBO series Band of Brothers, Major Dick Winters, commander of Easy Company, recalls being asked by his grandson if he had been a hero in the war.
“No,” he told the youngster, “but I served in the company of heroes.”
At the Milesburg Community Center recently, the approximately 250 people who attended the 5th annual Wild Game Feed were also in the company of heroes.
The theme for the dinner, which is sponsored by a group of local hunters from the Milesburg-Howard area, was “Honoring our Veterans.” And there were 14 veterans of World War II in attendance — men who served in both the European and Pacific theaters, men who had seen things no person should ever see, done things no person should ever have to do. Most of them were in their late teens and early 20s when the war broke out, most of them were wise beyond their years when they came home.
Ray Wallace was 19 when he parachuted into Normandy behind Omaha Beach, as part of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. His unit, the 507th PIR was part of the 82nd Airborne Division, which, along with Winters’ company of the 101st Airborne, was tasked with landing behind the German lines and cutting off the roadways by which reinforcements could join the entrenched German troops, who were firing on the allied troops landing on the beaches.
“It was 1:30 in the morning when we jumped,” he said. “Our plane got hit so the pilot told us to stand up and get out of the plane. There were 19 of us in the stick and only 15 of us were able to get together when we got on the ground.
“When I jumped the engine on the wing was on fire. The force of the chute opening caused my helmet to come down over my eyes and when I landed I sprained my ankle. We were 20 miles from where we were supposed to be. So a group of us hid out during the day and traveled at night to avoid the Germans. It was four days before we got where we were supposed to be.
“We were in a town called Legrange. When we got there we met up with 80 other guys. We were surrounded, but the Germans had to go through us to get to the beaches. So we stopped them.”
Thirty-three days later Wallace’s unit was returned to England where it rested and re-fitted before jumping into Holland that fall in the ill-fated, ill-advised Operation Market Garden.
“We landed right where the Germans were bivouacked,” Wallace said. “We held out for four or five days, then we were captured.”
Wallace spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp where he was put to work in a coal mine.
“The American POWs dug holes for light poles in the mine and the Russian prisoners laid the track for the railroad. We weren’t treated too bad. We didn’t have much to eat. I weighed 177 pounds when I jumped on D-Day and I weighed 97 pounds when the war ended in May.”
Wallace came home and went to work in the road construction business in Clearfield County before his company was sold. He wound up with a job with Armstrorng Cork near Lancaster, where he still lives.
He plans to return to France later this spring where the French people will welcome him back.
“I’ve got them fooled,” he chuckled. “They think I’m a hero.”
On the other side of the world, 17-year old Harley Wenninger of Wescosville was a gunner’s mate 3rd class on the light cruiser San Diego, which was basically a floating gun platform.
“We had guns all over the place,” he said. “Our job was to screen the (aircraft) carriers.”
Wenninger’s duty in his gun tub was to feed 64-pound projectiles into the 5-inch guns.
“Those things weighed 64 pounds and you had to lift them up to about eye level,” he explained. “And when we were bombarding the beaches we might be firing for eight hours or more. And we didn’t wear any ear plugs.”
During his tour the San Diego participated in virtually every major battle from Eniwetok to Okinawa and all of the islands in between from Truk to Iwo Jima to Saipan. And during that time he went 18 months without setting foot on land.
His tour finally ended in Tokyo Bay as part of the naval force witnessing the surrender ceremonies on the battleship Missouri. The San Diego had 15 battle stars during Wenninger’s time aboard ship.
“Admiral Nimitz selected our ship to be part of that because we didn’t have a single casualty,’’ he said. “We sailed into Tokyo Bay the night before the ceremony and we were the only ship in the bay. There wasn’t another ship around.
“The Japanese had been told to mark every gun position in the area with a white flag. When we looked up on the side of the mountain near the bay it was all white. If we had ever had to go in there (in an invasion) we would never have gotten out.’’
Wenninger came home to the Allentown area and wound up working for a gas company. He’s 93 now and is still an active member of the Walnut Grove Hunting Camp in Ardery Hollow, north of Port Matilda where, on his 90th birthday he shot a buck.
Charles Anderson of Bellefonte was married, had two children and was working for National Gypsum when he was drafted into the Army.
His war experience began in North Africa where he was a machine gunner on a tank. Later, as a member of the 3rd Division, 7th Infantry, he took part in the landings at Anzio.
“That was a hell hole,’’ said Anderson, now 100.’’We lost men every day.’’
Anderson, who accompanied his unit all the way to Hitler’s summer home in Austria at the end of the war, had a change of duties during the Italian campaign.
“They put me in graves registration,” he said. “We had to go out onto the battlefield at night and pick up the bodies. We would put them in mattress covers. We always had a captain with us. It was bad, but you got used to it.”
Late in the war Anderson’s unit helped free the concentration camps.
“I saw the mass graves,” he said. “I saw the gas chambers. It was a nightmare.”
Anderson, who earned nine battle stars, returned home to Bellefonte and went back to work at National Gyp.
He still laughs about his means of transportation home from Europe.
“They asked me if I wanted to go home by boat or airplane,’’ he said. “I said by airplane. So they put us in those C-47 cargo planes that had no seats. We sat on the floor and we were flying about 500 feet above the water. But we didn’t care.”
Nor should they have. They were going home to a hero’s welcome well deserved.