Allied forces declared victory in Europe 70 years ago this week. Many of those World War II veterans who returned home started gathering for annual reunions just a few years later. But that tradition is coming to an end. The strapping soldiers from units like the 30th Infantry Division are now too sick or unsteady to travel.
Frank Towers planned the reunions for the last three decades. He's in good shape by comparison, but he says it's become too much.
“There’s nobody who will actually take it over and do it. So there’s got to be an end sometime.”
Towers taps his cane on the wheelchair of a former comrade as he herds the ten veterans who made the trek into a Holiday Inn conference room. There was a time the division required a convention hall to get together. Now there are about 70 people, counting the descendants who fill the room.
These gatherings used to be a chance to reconnect with an old foxhole buddy, but those days are long gone, says Roger Casey from North Carolina.
“There’s not a soul here I knew back in the war—not a soul.”
A division has as many as 15,000 soldiers, so most of these guys are practically strangers, unless they’ve connected at past reunions. It’s apparent when the storytelling starts. Heads don’t nod along as if they've heard this one before. Casey shuffles to the podium and shares about his first clear shot at a Nazi patrol.
“At first it felt good to me, mowing them down. We turned tables on them, you might say. They had been ambushing us. We finally got to ambush them for a change.”
There is one story no one could forget.
In an unthinkable snafu blamed on a miscommunication, American planes began dropping bombs on their own men. More than 100 soldiers died, including a three-star general. At the reunion, family members gasp as Towers describes how 500-pound bombs hollowed out craters in the earth, burying GIs alive.
“All that dirt going up in the air and it had to come down on somebody, and a lot of our men were buried. This was the greatest tragedy—I think—of the whole war that we endured.”
The next veteran lightens the mood for a moment.
"Unfortunately, Frank has told my story," Bill Hornsby says before cutting back to the deadly day.
Twin boys had joined Hornsby's platoon the day before. He says one of them died under the hail of American bombs.
“The next day, the second boy got killed. I never will forget that, and I think that’s my story, a sad story.”
These are not the patriotic accounts that made it into old newsreels.
The division was made up of National Guard units from Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas. It was nicknamed “Old Hickory” after President Andrew Jackson of Tennessee.
The division landed in Normandy. Soldiers fought through France and wound up in the snowy Battle of the Bulge.
The black-and-white footage shows skinny, fresh-faced men, each with a cigarette between his lips, marching through fields and charging over embankments. Now, even those who fought as teenagers are 90-plus, and it shows at the reunion.
“We’ve come this far," says the baby boomer son of Vick Niland as he helps his dad up from a wheelchair.
Niland insists on standing. He tells of losing his favorite sergeant to a landmine known as a "bouncing Betty."
“We lost a lot of guys there, especially some guys I really loved.”
Video cameras capture every word for posterity. Children of these men wipe away tears.
A few Holocaust survivors stand in back to show their gratitude. The 30th Infantry freed them from Nazi train cars. If the veterans are moved by the occasion, they’re not showing it.
Nancy Lee Pitts of Nashville, however, is a mess.
“I’m sorry, but it’s just gotten to me,” she says as she dabs her nose with a wadded tissue.
Her father and husband were part of this division. Pitts lobbied to wind down the reunions eight years ago when there were more veterans still coming and they were healthy.
"I didn’t want it to get to this.”
After the war, these were stiff-backed, self-reliant men. She says it seemed like they’d never get old and soft. 70 years later, they’re hunched over walkers. It’s an unsettling image for Pitts. Still, she says she wouldn’t miss this last hurrah.