ROCKINGHAM — For World War II veteran T.B. Greene and many others, Memorial Day marks a struggle to forget.
As many Americans celebrate with family gatherings and cookouts beside the pool Monday, others will recline in solitude, avoiding the noise and revelry.
They are the warriors who faced brutal enemy forces overseas and outlived friends who fought beside them. They are the brave men who stood with France and Great Britain against Germany during the Battle of the Bulge in Hitler’s final bid to divide the Allied forces and break their supply lines.
Journalist Tom Brokaw famously called the soldiers of that era the “greatest generation.” According to U.S. Veterans Administration figures, they are a dying breed; most are more than 90 years old and more than 500 die every day.
Greene, 90, of Rockingham, celebrated his birthday Thursday. One of the last surviving WW II veterans in Richmond County, Greene remembers the war all too well.
In November, 1943, he completed basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
“After I came out of Basic, we went to different places for more training,” Greene said. “It wasn’t long after that we ended up in England, then France. We joined the 3rd Armored Division and we were fighting for Great Britain. We liberated France from the Germans, fighting continuously for about a year.”
What he saw during that time haunts him to this day. Holocaust deniers claim the atrocities of Nazi Germany carried out against Jews never happened; Greene saw them with his own eyes.
“I remember once, there was a huge dump truck of bodies,” Greene said. “They were Jews. They got dumped into a big old hole in the ground, limbs and body parts all together. The Germans, their intentions were to kill all the Jews.”
Another memory of the Nazi terror involves a group of Jewish prisoners who were led by their German captors to a place where they could clean up after a long journey. Greene’s wife, Louise, has heard him tell the tale many times.
“They thought they were going to get a shower, so they went and took off their clothes and went into the stalls, but instead of getting a shower, they were gassed,” she said.
“It’s too hard,” Greene said. “Too hard to talk about that.”
Greene also remembers times when he was stationed close to German villages, when the soldiers encountered starving children.
“In the chow line, the little children had so little food, we would feed them through the fence,” he said. “Wherever we were stationed at the time, we got food in our mess kits. Some of it was so bad we didn’t even want it, but we would hand it to the starving kids. They would eat it up. A lot of those families had been burned out of their homes.”
And then, there were the soldiers themselves, struggling to navigate unfamiliar territory and the brutality of ice and snow during the Battle of the Bulge.
“It was six months or more before they could take off their shoes,” Greene said. “This was because of the cold, all the snow, the ice. And all the marching, no time to stop and rest. Some of those boys’ feet rotted off by the time they got those boots off.”
The Germans, he said, had a tactical advantage as the Allied forces encroached on Germany; their Panzer tanks were superior, for one thing, and they knew the terrain well. They would station lookouts in trees and church steeples, constantly scanning for signs of the enemy.
“We couldn’t build a fire or anything that would make smoke,” Greene said. “The Germans would see it and fire on us immediately. Our tanks, we couldn’t start them either because they would make a huge cloud of smoke from the exhaust. The Germans had some awesome antitank guns. They could knock ‘em out from miles down the road if they could see it.”
Greene explained that the Allied tanks, filled with gasoline and munitions, were like bombs going off if they were hit.
“When the antitank guns fired, the slug would go straight through it (our tank,) come out the other side and kill everyone inside,” Greene said. “We called that the iron coffin.”
Greene has never visited the National World War II Memorial in Washington. He doesn’t expect he ever will.
“When I got out of that stuff and got home, I just tried to forget as much of it as I could,” he said. “It’s hard, because you can’t really forget.”
As for the wars going on in the world today, Greene doesn’t follow them.
“I’ve tried not to keep up with it too much, because it’s hell no matter how you go at it,” he said. “War is hell.”
Reach reporter Melonie Flomer at 910-997-3111, ext. 15.