Old Reliables

And then there were two.

Only two World War II veterans from the 9th Infantry Division attended their reunion this year. The rest of us at the 76th annual event were mostly the widows, sons and daughters of veterans.

We gathered in Fayetteville, North Carolina, last week to dedicate a bronze plaque at Fort Bragg commemorating the division, which became known as the Old Reliables. The men of the 9th, including my dad, trained at that Army base before they deployed to Africa in late 1942.

A military band played patriotic tunes as we approached Bragg’s eternal flame. Uniformed paratroopers stood at attention in the bright sun. We pledged our allegiance and placed commemorative flowers in a wreath. Speakers extolled the 9th’s daring. A single trumpet played taps. The simple, dignified ceremony brought some to tears.

Surviving World War II vets now are in their late 90’s and over 100. The steady loss of these men has been inevitable, but that hasn’t made it any easier. Now, younger men who served in the 9th in Vietnam are replacing them.

The World War II vet in the photo above is Jack Dauner. He sits next to a stone memorial for the 9th dedicated in 1982, located near Bragg’s Main Post Parade Field. Other photos show the new bronze plaque, the military band and a group of widows and vets.

The first time I attended a 9th Infantry Division Association reunion wasn’t until 2008. I was in the middle of doing research for my novel, SECRET BATTLES, when I learned that the group soon would meet at an Orlando hotel near my home. I crashed the event, hoping to fill in the many gaps in my knowledge.

My research had been slow-going until then, other than the war letters and journals my father left me. The 9th had been deactivated in 1991 and my father died the following year. I could find little about the unit online and nothing about the medical clearing company in which my father served.

At the 2008 reunion, I spent hours in the hospitality room quizzing veterans and their families. I went from table to table asking the veterans if any of them knew my father. I knew I was being hopelessly optimistic. My father had been a lowly private. A surgical technician. Of the more than 10,000 men who had served in the 9th in World War II, only a two or three dozen, at most, were there that afternoon.

Then, at the last table, one man turned around and said, “I knew him!” At first, I thought he was teasing me. A lot of vets that day enjoyed doing that. Then the man, Herb Stern, described my father. I realized he not only knew my dad but had served with him in the same medical company. They had corresponded after the war. They were friends.

What are the odds?

Herb Stern became an invaluable source of information. Whenever I wanted to check a detail, I called him. What did the surgery tent look like? Did it have a dirt floor? How many men worked there? What was the Nordhausen labor camp like?

Herb couldn’t attend the reunion this year for health reasons, but an interview with him was played the first night. He was a charter member of the Ninth Infantry Division Association when it formed immediately after the war in 1945.

During the war, he handled administrative duties for the clearing company as its clerk. But that’s not all he did. As soon as the Army discovered that Herb, a native of Germany, spoke flawless English, German and French, his side job soon became interrogating German prisoners captured near the front. My novel has a company clerk character, but I’ve told Herb it could bear no resemblance to him. The minute I let a hint of him into my book, I said, his own remarkable story would overtake it.

Herb, who turns 102 this month, lives in Austin, Texas. He is as witty and bright as ever. I feel fortunate to call him a friend.

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