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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

On Veterans Day

(Originally published on November 11, 2011.)

This handsome young man, who - some say - bears a striking resemblance to his offspring, is being honored this day - Veterans Day - for his service to his country.

Harold Fuhrman, son of Heinrich and Ida Majeske Fuhrman, joined the United States army in 1942 and became one of the legenday "Screaming Eagles" of the renowned 101st Airborne Division - made famous in both the movie, "Saving Private Ryan," and in the HBO mini-series, "Band of Brothers." The 101st Airborne first saw combat action the night before D-Day, June 5, 1944, just hours before the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. The division parachuted and glided into Normandy - northern France - behind German lines with the purpose of disrupting Nazi communications and preventing counterattacks when the naval assault on the Normandy beaches began the next day.

According to military planners, because of the nature of the task before them - night attack, units scattered across the Normandy countryside, powerful German defenses in the immediate area, no support from the naval assault taskforce for at least a day or longer - it was expected that the division would suffer horrendous casualties in the assault. And it did. 1240 men were either killed or wounded in a matter of a few days and a considerable number went missing. Included on the list of missing in action, a dreadfully long list, was the name Harold Fuhrman.

That assault proved to be Harold's one and only combat experience. He was captured near Ste-Mere-Eglise, became officially a Prisoner of War, and spent the next year being transferred from one German prison camp to another, all the while losing weight as a result of poor dietary conditions, losing some teeth as a result of unsanitary living conditions (eventually he'd have them all removed), but never losing his American spirit.

Harold Fuhrman was liberated from a hellhole of a prison camp near Küstrin
, on the German border with Poland in April of 1945 by the Russian army and, after walking from eastern Germany to the Black Sea in the Crimea in order to find transportation home, Harold made his way back to the USA.

After the war ended, like millions of other veterans, Harold Fuhrman returned home and went back to work. He married Lorraine Riehle and eventually raised a fine family - three sons and a daughter.

He rarely spoke of his war experiences. But when he did, the accounts were startling, the details sobering. He once related the story of the death of a soldier near him and the odd sound that a bullet makes when it impacts the human skull. Like a rock thudding into a pool of water.

He also - once - revealed a scar near his knee that resulted from a wound that he sustained in battle, one for which he received no Bronze Star or Purple Heart. No handshake from the President of the United States. No interview with the news media. By the time he made his way back to his unit after being liberated, it had been long healed and - as was the norm in that era - it was a minor wound, one that didn't rise to the level warranting a medal. Those were indeed different times. As William Halsey said back then, "There are no extraordinary men ... just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with." Harold Fuhrman's wound was ordinary - in that extraordinary era - and he thought no more about it. Life went on.

Harold also told the story of his trek across southeast Europe after he was freed and of his having come upon a field where a battle had taken place sometime previously. The field was strewn with the decaying bodies of German soldiers left to decompose where they lay; the Russians had more important matters at hand than to take the time to bury their dead enemies. Harold stripped the winter coat from one of the corpses and moved on. Such were the times.

Harold Fuhrman lived a long life. A good life. Though he was never recognized for his service to - or particularly for his sacrifice for - his country, he was proud of that which he'd been able to contribute. He never asked for recognition. He sought no medals. He considered his enlistment and substantial sacrifices as part of his duty to his country; the country that he held dear every day of his life - one for which he had tremendous gratitude, in which he had terrific pride.

Harold Fuhrman is dead now and buried in a lonely cemetery in rural Indiana. A military marker atop his grave simply reads, "Harold Fuhrman, 101st Airborne Div., WWII." It is as he would have wanted it. Simple. Unassuming. No embroidery. He served his country and that was that.

Even though he might have been embarrassed by it, his children decided to honor his service to the United States of America by placing a memorial - one tiny commemoration among thousands of similar remembrances - in the World War II Memorial at Fort Campbell, KY, home to the 101st Airborne Division. It is there for all the world to see and will be there for all time. Without his knowing it then, what he and his fellow soldiers did to preserve freedom for the entire western world has gone down in history. He and they are now honored by a thankful nation - and a respectful family - and will be forever.

Harold Fuhrman's children - Steve, Randy, Suellen, and Jerry - take time out to remember their father this Veterans Day.

- - - - - - 

I lifted this photo from a video that's now available on youtube that was released at the end of World War II by the British press. Included is a Nazi propaganda clip that, at about the 10 second mark, has brief footage of Allied prisoners captured on and around D-Day being marched through the streets of Paris, heading towards POW camps further inland.

The tall soldier at left (circled in red) is my father, Technical Sergeant Harold H. Fuhman, 101st Airborne Division. He appears to be among a group of Canadian, American, and British prisoners being led by armed German guards and officers.
He spent the remainder of the war in prison camps around Germany and was liberated by the Russians in January, 1945.

The video - from British Pathé press - found here -


- also shows French civilians spitting on, and slapping those same prisoners as they passed through the crowd. The same French civilians who cheered the American liberators just months later (...).

- - - - - 

This account of the prisoners' liberation by the Red Army comes from Sergeant Gordon B. Pack, USA, January 31, 1945: 

"Soon, long columns of prisoners were threading their way along the snow filled road. Some pushing, some pulling sleds; others wheelbarrows, wagons and so on to haul their blanket rolls and the few odds and ends they were able to hang on to. Apparently there weren't any definite place it seemed to go to.

We had been traveling I suppose to the best of my estimation some 40 to 50 minutes, with not a word being spoken along the whole column, when all at once, all hell seemed to break loose up ahead. We were nearing a small village, and there were hails of leaden death streamed towards us. Machine guns were chattering their deadly song, as rifles cracked and bullets whined all around. Soon, the heavy 'boom' of a big gun, then the bursting a shell. Soon another, then another, another. They were all landing in the midst of us. Right where that would do the most damage. Shouts and screams of pain and agony were wrenched from men's lips that were hit by shell fragments and bullets and couldn't get away. 

Words cannot explain the horror and the blood chilling sounds that filled the air. I, myself witnessed a scene I shan't forget. Panic soon had its way, and men began running every which way, skimming across the fields of snow trying to find cover. One minute, I saw a head on a man's shoulder, the next, there was no head. This man kept going 15-20 yards, then fell to the ground a bloody mass of torn flesh and bone. During the excitement someone yell out, 'For God's sake, men, keep down!' But that cry had been better if not uttered. It only seemed to prompt them on. Half of us did manage to stay down, while the rest scattered the fields lining each side of the road. Some were jumping in holes, ditches, sunken places in the ground, behind the few scattered trees that were available. And some were placing their blanket rolls in front of their body for the little protection they offered; which wasn't very much. 

During all of this someone yelled 'Ruskies! Which means 'Russians', the 'Ruskies' are here! Someone make a flag, waved a handkerchief to show them we are unarmed. This was done by a sergeant by the name of Herman Curley. We all called him Curley for short. As soon as he had it finished, he rose and started toward the Russians which were about 300 yards from us. We were still unrecognizable at that distance. Curley started but never got there. A rifle cracked and he slumped to the ground a pitiful sight still with the flag of surrender in his hand. (This brave act that no other man had attempted to do should by every last one of us be remembered. For to my opinion, it saved our lives though it very near cost him his.)" 

It is reported that five POW's were accidentally killed by the Russians that day.

- - - - - 

by A. Lawrence Vaincourt

He was getting old and paunchy and his hair was falling fast,
And he sat around the Legion, telling stories of the past.
Of a war that he had fought in and the deeds that he had done,
In his exploits with his buddies; they were heroes, every one.
And tho' sometimes, to his neighbors, his tales became a joke,
All his Legion buddies listened, for they knew whereof he spoke.
But we'll hear his tales no longer for old Bill has passed away,
And the world's a little poorer, for a soldier died today.
He will not be mourned by many, just his children and his wife,
For he lived an ordinary and quite uneventful life.
Held a job and raised a family, quietly going his own way,
And the world won't note his passing, though a soldier died today.
When politicians leave this earth, their bodies lie in state,
While thousands note their passing and proclaim that they were great.
Papers tell their whole life stories, from the time that they were young,
But the passing of a soldier goes unnoticed and unsung.
Is the greatest contribution to the welfare of our land
A guy who breaks his promises and cons his fellow man?
Or the ordinary fellow who, in times of war and strife,
Goes off to serve his Country and offers up his life?
A politician's stipend and the style in which he lives
Are sometimes disproportionate to the service that he gives.
While the ordinary soldier, who offered up his all,
Is paid off with a medal and perhaps, a pension small.
It's so easy to forget them for it was so long ago,
That the old Bills of our Country went to battle, but we know
It was not the politicians, with their compromise and ploys,
Who won for us the freedom that our Country now enjoys.
Should you find yourself in danger, with your enemies at hand,
Would you want a politician with his ever-shifting stand?
Or would you prefer a soldier, who has sworn to defend
His home, his kin and Country and would fight until the end?
He was just a common soldier and his ranks are growing thin,
But his presence should remind us we may need his like again.
For when countries are in conflict, then we find the soldier's part
Is to clean up all the troubles that the politicians start.
If we cannot do him honor while he's here to hear the praise,
Then at least let's give him homage at the ending of his days.
Perhaps just a simple headline in a paper that would say,
Our Country is in mourning, for a soldier died today.

Memorial photo coutesy of the 101st Airborne Division Assn.