A Company of Heroes
Throughout the period of my dads illness and death I had the privilege of communicating with two men my dad served with during WWII, James Renfro and Myron Roker. They spoke with great enthusiasm about their friendship with Dad, their military past and the yearly reunions that brought them together. For reasons unknown to me, my dad never attended his Regimental reunion. I know it wasnt for lack of pridemy dad was intensely proud of his service as a soldier as well as the men he served with. After dad died, I was invited to attend the 2008 reunion of the 324th Infantry Regiment, which I did on September 5th and 6th. What follows is more of an essay than a report and I respectfully dedicated it to James, Myron, and the rest of the wonderful men of the 324th, a true company of heroes.
They are not difficult to identify. In a busy Marriot Hotel filled with incoming and outgoing weekend travelers from the nearby St. Louis airport these men stand out from the crowd.
Most of them are gray or balding. They walk ever so slowly, some navigating the long hotel hallways with the use of canes or wheelchairs, some on the arm of likewise graying wives or middle aged sons and daughters.
Perhaps it is their age that makes them stand out in the crowd, but I believe it is much, much more than that. After all, there are countless other senior saints walking the hallways of this hotel on this same weekend.
No, there is something else. There is the sense of wonder and awe they radiate at having been blessed to be able to make the journey to St. Louis for this very special weekend, especially given the common experience that brings them together.
These men are survivors. These are men who 60+ years ago shared an experience that continues to draw them together year after year to share that sense of awe and to once again tell their stories, stories that in some way must seem like an eternity ago and yet in other ways are as fresh in their minds as their nightly dreams.
These are humble, quiet men. Deep into their 80s now, they once served their country when their country was in the hour of its deepest need. Without their service and sacrifice, our world would be a much, much different place today.
These are the men of the 44th Infantry Division, 324th Infantry Headquarters Regiment. These men spent an extraordinary season together from September 1944 until the end of World War II. They saw all the horrors of war and lived to tell about them, though most are somewhat reluctant to do so.
Here they are, gathered in the comfort of a plush hotel in the Midwest, some 63 years removed from the battlefields and the circumstances and events that brought them together for that season but bonded them together for a lifetime.
They will spend this beautiful September weekend laughing. They are truly filled with joy at the prospect of being together again. Some will joke that at our age, were just glad to be anywhere! They laugh because they have earned the right to laugh and, after nine months on the front lines facing death each and every day, they know that there are few things in life that could ever be as horrible, as physically and mentally draining as what they went through together. When you have been there, I guess it is easier to laugh at anything else life might bring your way.
They will tell stories. They will tell the story of the Christmas Eve when they stumbled upon a seemingly abandoned church in the middle of a war ravaged village. They will tell of being compelled to linger there and hold an impromptu Christmas Eve church service. They will remember the platoon member who sat at the piano and plucked out a few Christmas hymns amidst the dust and debris of war. They will tell of the villagers who, having survived the battle that had engulfed them, find their way to the church, drawn by the strains of the Christmas music.
They will tell of the night they were sent out behind enemy lines to seek out the enemy, only to be caught in the glare of lighted flares and be exposed to withering enemy machine gun fire that would claim the life of one of their buddies.
On this weekend one of those men from that patrol and that night will stand exchanging stories with the son of another patrol member as well as the son-in-law of the commander who sent them on their mission. For those three men, that night in March 1945 will bond them together in a very special way.
At times you will have to remind yourself that these stories are not fabrications from some Hollywood script, but real life stories burned forever in the minds of these proud men who lived them out.
And the stories will go on throughout the weekend. You will know they are coming because just about every conversation begins with a line such as, Do you remember, or Did I ever tell you about the time
And they will cry. Oh my, how they will cry. They will shed tears at the mention of a friend lost on the battlefield six decades earlier and they will cry at the mention of the passing of a friend just six months earlier. Sometimes they will just cry at the very thought of those times and those days and those places.
They will be typified by the man who approaches, obviously wanting to share a thought or a memory. Instead his eyes water, his chin trembles, and the words wont come. Finally, he turns slowly and with an apologetic wave of the hand, walks slowly and sadly away, leaving one to wonder what those words, what that story or memory would have been.
You soon realize that while these men are humble, quiet, and sensitive men they are also fiercely proud men. They are proud of their past and what they did. They are proud of their country and what it stands for. They are proud of their part in preserving freedom and a way of life. They are proud to say they are part of the 324th Wildcats and they are proud to say they served alongside one another.
To be in their midst, even for just a few hours of this quiet September weekend, is a solemn and awe-inspiring experience. To be in their midst is to be in the midst of history living, breathing, history.
It is impossible to look at these men and even begin to imagine what horrors they endured. Yet endure they did and they returned to the lives and wives and girlfriends and jobs they left behind. Then, without fanfare or demands, they set about forging a life, all the while trying in vain to forget the battlefield, as if that could ever happen.
I am a proud son of the 324th Infantry Regiment. It is my fathers regiment. These were his friends, the comrades in arms of my dads youth and they are now my friends. It is an honor and a privilege beyond measure to spend time with them, to hear their stories, to be able to cry with them.
These men are my past, although until this weekend I didnt realize how great a part they played, and they are my present for indeed they are now my friends. They are my future, as well, because now it is my solemn responsibility to do my part to preserve their memory and the memory of their service and sacrifice. That duty becomes even clearer to me in the course of this one brief encounter and is fueled by an ever-increasing love and respect for these men.
At the conclusion of the weekend they will bid one another tearful farewells once again, farewells made all the more intense by the knowledge that many of them will never reunite in this life. Last year there were more than 40, this year 30, next yearwho knows? Being in their midst for even this brief moment in time one finds it easy to understand why this reunion is so important to them.
I am blessed to have the privilege to speak at the conclusion of their Saturday evening banquet. As these men gathered with wives and families a small round table, elegantly set with a single place setting, flanks the podium, a reminder of all the past members of this proud company no longer among the living.
I speak of my father, their friend. I speak of my community and the many heroes I grew up in the midst of. I speak of my gratitude to them. I thank them for their stories.
As I conclude my remarks, I remind them of a wonderful, poignant story told by yet another World War II veteran.
It seems his grandson had asked him, Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?
This veteran quietly answered, No, but I served in a company of heroes.
As I look out across the banquet room, into the eyes of men unashamedly wiping away the tears, I know without any doubt, that I am truly in the company of heroes.