I woke up on this morning a week before Christmas and staggered to the shower as I do most every morning. It was a little cold in the house so once the steam rolled up the walls and out of the shower door, I stepped in. As I basked in the warmth of the rushing water, it suddenly dawned on me that 75 years ago on this day my 21-year-old father, Jack Rheney, was huddled in a snow-filled foxhole in eastern Belgium.
The Battle of the Bulge was in its critical first stages and the American forces of 610,000 men were on their heels in retreat. After nearly four months of continuous fighting the 104th Timberwolf Division was so depleted (the division still holds the record for the number of days of continuous fighting with the enemy at 192 days) they were ordered to dig in and defend Antwerp, which they had recently taken. Little did they know that the whole goal of the German counterattack was to split the Allied forces and retake Antwerp to re-establish a supply line from the sea and force the Allies to negotiate a truce. My father’s thinly space lined was directly in line with the assault. Had the Germans known how weak the division was, they would have made a direct assault on the 104th instead of employing a pincer attack north and south of the line. The 104th and my father would have been obliterated.
A few nights later while the weather was still at its worst and before the American air forces could fly, my father was sharing a fox hole with a medic. They had a blanket over them and it was covered with snow, making them look like one big lump huddled together. A German solder slipped up under cover of darkness and machined gunned the two men for what must have seemed like an eternity before neighboring soldiers cut him down. The medic was killed with multiple wounds. My father was unhurt.
While they crossed the bridge into the city of Cologne a few weeks later, snipers killed the man in front of and wounded the man behind Daddy. After attrition took out all of the commanders in front of him, Dad got a battlefield promotion to staff sergeant and was given a rifle squad to command. That entitled him to the dubious honor of trading in his M1 rifle for a Thompson machine gun. He used this weapon to spray cellars as he was the first one in to these hiding places as the Americans fought door to door through the German cities on the way to Berlin. Later, when he was clearing one of these buildings, a German soldier fired a bazooka at him just as he fired his Thompson. He hit the German in the arm, which affected his aim enough that the high explosive round struck the building above him. As Corporal Malone, whom I met as a child, pulled Daddy out of the way, a slab of concrete slammed down where he had been standing.
My mother has also shared tales of picking cotton to support a one-parent family. With little fanfare or woeful tales of sacrifice, she has recounted rationing of everyday goods for the war effort. Each family was only allowed so many tires or pounds of sugar.
These examples of how close I came to not ever existing are not really all that exceptional for those teenagers who fought three quarters of a century ago for the freedoms we enjoy today. When I visit my father’s grave, I see names like Shuler, Campbell, Sims, Duncan, Clinge, Autman, Sells and Antley that remind me that so many men I knew and took for granted did the unselfish and the unthinkable for their loved ones and country. They were all heroes. Which brings us to today.
I have written outdoor columns for The Times and Democrat for 35 years. I have intentionally just tried to entertain and take a walk through the woods with readers so that we can relax and think about the bounty we have around us. I have stayed away from politics in these columns so as not to offend, just entertain.
I doubt the people who died in the great wars fighting against imperialism, fascism, socialism or communism -- whether they were white, black, Hispanic, Japanese or American Indian -- would be pleased with the ease with which we now give up the rights they fought for. I know that if people stood over my mother and father at a restaurant and screamed at them while they tried to eat, Jack Rheney would have cracked a wine bottle over their foreheads.
My adapted grandfather (originally from Massachusetts) once told me that my grandchildren would see the end of our republic as we know it because people coming to our country refused to assimilate into our society and demanded the opposite. He was a soldier in the Army and Air Force through four wars, spanning World War I through the Vietnam War. He probably would not understand college “safe spaces” and obstructionism when speakers try to take an opposing viewpoint to what the snowflakes are being taught in our universities by professors having never faced a challenge greater than a hangnail.
Even Socrates once lamented he didn’t know what would become of the young people of his time by stating, “Youth is wasted on Youth.” Change is inevitable, but change for the sake of change is not.
I look around at the endless infighting by our elected representatives. I see the ridiculous political correctness where everyone is offended by someone else’s personal opinions. Public apologies seem to clutter news bandwidth every day. I note that constitutional rights are slowly taken away from our citizens so they can be bestowed on those having done nothing to earn them.
I see a society that is spiraling down the same path as the failed Roman Empire, where morals are ignored and soon the minority will work to support the leisure of the majority. We have been beaten down slowly by shaming from our politicians and news media so that we barely notice the slow taking of our freedoms. We barely notice as people from both ends of the financial spectrum grab more and more as we in the middle are told we aren’t giving our fair share.
I am grateful for what I have and who I am, but I realize my unremarkable life was built at the expense of those paying the ultimate price for me. Most importantly, I am grateful that unlike the coming generations I can remember who those people were.
Dr. John Rheney has been writing his outdoors column for The Times and Democrat since 1984.
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