Between The Bridges

This past weekend the Broad Channel VFW hosted a barbecue for several busloads of disabled veterans residing at the St. Albans Veterans Hospital Living Center. During the BBQ, I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Mr. Anton Dietrich who recalls how after being drafted into the United States Army as a young man in the 1940's, he trained with a shaped piece of wood instead of an actual rifle because actual weapons were hard to come by, even for the Army. This was because of the drastic reductions in defense spending after WWI, exacerbated by the 1941 Lend-Lease Act, which saw a great deal of American-made arms and defense materials being transferred without compensation to Great Britain, China, the Soviet Union.

Ultimately the Army got its act together and after Anton surrendered his wooden replica for a real rifle he was transferred to the U.S. Army 9th Infantry Division. During 1942, Anton and the other "Old Reliables" of the 9th Division participated in the invasion of North Africa where Anton was somewhat surprised to find that in addition to the Germans, his unit also became embroiled in battles in the elements of the Vichy French. In 1943, Anton and the 9th Division fought both the Germans and Italian soldiers in order to provide a path for the upcoming Allied invasion of Italy.

After the successful conclusion of the Sicily campaign, Anton and the rest of the 9th Division stood down for some well-deserved rest and recreation but history was not yet done with Anton and the rest of the 9th as re-training soon followed. In late 1943 they were at sea again heading this time for England to prepare for the fighting in Normandy, France.

Because the 9th Infantry Division was an already battle-hardened outfit, with several combat campaigns already under their belts, they did not land on the beaches during D-Day when the invasion of France began early on the morning of June 6, 1944. Anton and the rest of the 9th Division instead landed on Utah Beach  on D-Day four days (June 10th) as part of two U.S. Infantry Divisions now on the beachhead with previous combat experience with orders to fight their way inland. It was during this drive inland several weeks after landing on Utah Beach  that the war ended for Anton.

As Anton explained it, "I was hit by a mortar shell which nearly tore my right arm off. I still to this day don't know how but I was able to get up and run about 100 feet to the command post where a buddy of mine, after applying a tourniquet, kicked down a wooden door and used it as a stretcher to transport me to a field medic who saved my life."  A Purple Heart and several surgeries later, medical staff were able to save Anton's arm but the nerve damage was so severe that his right arm remained totally disabled. 

Seventy-three years after returning home from the war in Europe, Mr. Dietrich is 98 years old and quickly lets you know that he is looking forward to celebrating his 99th birthday this coming September. Anton was accompanied to the BBQ by his daughter Pauline who sat by her father's side at the picnic table the whole time he was telling us his story with tears of pride glistening in her eyes.

To those who meet him for the first time, Anton is an ordinary man. But for those of us who take the time to get to know him we find that he is actually an extraordinary human being - a person who offered some of his life's most vital years in the service of his country, and who sacrificed his ambitions so others would not have to sacrifice theirs.

So remember, each time you see someone who has served our country, just lean over and say Thank You. That's all most people need, and in most cases it will mean more than any medals they could have been awarded or were awarded.

And so this week, on behalf of all the residents of Broad Channel, I will simply close by saying  - "Thank You Anton Dietrich!"

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