WWII veterans panel

Fort Hood soldiers attending a First Army event at the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel in Killeen on Thursday listen to a panel of three World War II veterans describe their experiences.

Amy Proctor

KILLEEN — A room full of Fort Hood soldiers, family members and several World War II veterans traveled back in time Thursday morning during a talk and panel discussion about the Battle of the Bulge, a pivotal conflict for the outcome of World War II.

The morning’s events, held at the Courtyard by Marriott, served as a precursor to the First Army’s annual military ball later that evening. Each year, the group focuses on different regiments. This year, they chose the 393rd and 395th Infantry Regiments under the 99th Infantry Division.

Three World War II veterans — retired Staff Sgt. Edwin J. Burke and retired Sgt. James R. Mcilroy, both 92, and retired Col. Robert W. Hawn, 91, were able to attend to hear a talk from the 99th Infantry Division Missing in Action (MIA) project, a volunteer group started for the purpose of recovering and identifying remains and artifacts in order to reunite them with the soldiers and families of the 99th Infantry Division.

MIA Project member Eric Bijtelaar, a native of the Netherlands, emphasized the organization’s mission — to provide closure for families as well as to reunite them with found relics. Providing examples of his organization’s discoveries, Bitjelaar talked about a canteen that had been reunited with the owner’s family, in addition to a shoe that found its way back to its owner’s descendants (who were present at the event, the family of late Staff Sgt. Roy E. House), thanks to a serial number painted on the bottom of it.

The veterans also spoke in a panel after the talk, answering questions from those in attendance. All three of the men joined the Army at age 18 and were part of the Army Specialized Training Program, a program designed for bright young soldiers who possessed technical skills vital for the country’s wartime effort. The men were all soldiers of the 393rd Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division.

Together, they participated in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and the Battle at Remagen Bridge.

The veterans agreed their days participating in the historic battle were ones not easily forgotten.

When asked what they had been doing on the morning of Dec. 16, 1944, Burke said, “We went down for breakfast on the morning of the 16th and the Germans had already been through on that road. They took our kitchen crew, our breakfast, our Mermite cans, they took it all. So there we were, behind German lines all alone, so we had to see what we could do to get back to battalion headquarters. We found out really quickly that we could make better time going through the woods than along the road, so we marched that way for a few days and finally ran into our captain. We knew he had the maps on where we were going so we stuck real close to him. We finally got to Elsenborn Ridge and the rest I think you heard about.”

“I went all the way across the Rhine River bridge the day before it collapsed,” said Hawn. “A month and a day before the war was over, I got mine while running across the Remagen bridge, my ‘ticket home’ — a load of shrapnel (in my right leg). After we crossed (Remagen), they put us in a tunnel because there was still machine gun fire on the bridge. Later, we went upstream and climbed up on top of a mountain, watching the German planes trying to blow up the bridge. We sat up there for more than a day, and they were shooting all the time, the fragments of bullets hitting our helmets. It was an experience you have to go through to truly appreciate. I spent 90 days in the hospital after that.”

A Fort Hood soldier present at the event asked Hawn, “When you were going through the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle at Remagen Bridge, did you know at the time that it was going to be such a significant event?”

“It was the farthest thing from my mind,” said Hawn with a laugh.

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