Monday, August 20, 2012

Though fewer, World War II veterans in Pittsburgh region reunite - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Time, like war, takes its toll on soldiers.

An organization of World War II veterans who served in the U.S. Army's 9th Infantry Division held its 67th annual reunion over the weekend at the Sheraton Station Square Hotel with 75 people attending.

Of those, only 11 were war veterans. The others included veterans' wives, widows, sons, daughters and grandchildren, who represent the future of the Ninth Infantry Division Association.

Several veterans, ranging in age from 86 to 95, used canes. One was in a wheelchair. But all expressed the joy of spending time with the men with whom they served, often under horrible circumstances.

No more than 200 World War II division veterans still are living, which might not seem to bode well for the Ninth Infantry Division Association, the organization that schedules the reunions and publishes its newsletter.

But plans for next year's reunion are under way. During the weekend, the association's board of governors, historically consisting of division veterans, ceded authority to family members to keep it active and schedule future reunions. Friendships forged among family members during the past 67 years have stoked interest in continuing to document veterans' accounts of the war and to honor them.

"It's the legacy that our fathers created and lived through, and being proud of what our fathers did, and to continue to honor and respect them," said William G. Sauers, 67, of Torrance, Calif., association secretary and treasurer.

His father, William L. Sauers, died March 16, 1945, in Notscheid, Germany -- three months before his son was born.

The veterans said they'll continue attending the reunions, health permitting.

"Every year we get together to refight the war," said Russ Bellanca, 87, of Rochester, N.Y.. "Once you're with these guys, with guns firing at you, you become very good friends."

The 9th Division, known as the "Old Reliables," played important roles in the European Theater through WWII.

It was the first division to face combat in Northern Africa and forced a German surrender in Bizerte, Tunisia.

Then the division pursued Germans into Sicily and Italy. The division crossed the English Channel and reached Normandy four days after D-Day.

It suffered heavy casualties during the five-month Battle of Huertgen Forest in Germany and held defensive positions during the Battle of the Bulge.

Its troops were the first to cross the Rhine River into Germany after winning the Battle of Remagen, which allowed them to cross the Ludendorff Bridge.

During World War II, 4,581 soldiers in the 9th Division were killed -- a total that the veterans said is understated by several thousand.

Of the eight men attending the association's board of governors' meeting Sunday, three had been prisoners of war, all describing harrowing escapes in the war's final weeks as Americans moved in and the Germans grew careless.

One of the eight had suffered malaria and another dysentery. They talked of near starvation, near misses, exhaustion and stress. All suffered war injuries, save for one who broke his leg but not during combat.

But Mr. Bellanca trumped the others in claiming the most curious situation in which to receive a war wound.

He had taken over a fox hole where he found left-behind military magazines, including one with a centerfold of actress Rita Hayworth.

"I took out the centerfold and was hanging it on the root of a tree when -- boom," he said.

Artillery fire went through a hedgerow and left him with powder burns on the side of his face. He also spent eight months as a prisoner of war.

"I wouldn't take a million dollars to have missed it," Mr. Bellanca said of his war experiences. "But you couldn't pay me enough to repeat it."

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