Thursday, September 19, 2002

WWII band of brothers together 57 years later

86th Blackhawks remember 'We were just kids'

By Howard Wilkinson,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In the spring of 1945, as they raced across Europe in pursuit of the Nazi army, Mort Mallin and about 15,000 of his fellow soldiers in the 86th Blackhawk Infantry Division had no idea they were making history.

        They were just trying to stay alive.

[photo] From left, Patricia and Raymond Sill, and Rudy Kovic look at photos with Mort Mallin during the reunion of the 86th Blackhawk Division Wednesday.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        “We were just kids; we didn't know what was going on,” said Mr. Mallin of West Chester, who turned 18 in the spring of 1945 as his unit was about to ship out of the States for Europe.

        “We just went where we were told. It was all happening too fast for us to take any notice.”

        But the passage of time has impressed on those who survived how momentous the events were.

        Wednesday, the men of the 86th — now in their 70s and 80s — began gathering at the Drawbridge Inn in Fort Mitchell for their annual reunion — a chance to flip through photo albums, rekindle the camaraderie that was sparked on the muddy roads of France and Germany, and remember fondly the comrades who did not return.

        “We have a lot of good men here who went through a lot together,” said Bob Bookbinder, a retired educator from Pompano Beach, Fla., who is president of the 86th Blackhawk Division Association. “And there are fewer and fewer of us left all the time.”

Mort Mallin in 1945
        The 86th Blackhawks were slated to go to the Pacific theater, but the Battle of the Bulge so depleted the Allies' ranks in Europe that many infantry divisions — including the 86th — were diverted to the European theater.

        They landed in Le Havre, France, and fought their way into Germany, becoming part of the famous “Ruhr Pocket” campaign in Germany, in which the Allies squeezed the remaining German army in the east and took nearly 100,000 prisoners.

        Through the campaign that ended with the collapse of Hitler's regime and the German surrender in May, the 86th had 1,226 killed, missing and wounded — nearly 9 percent of the unit's strength.

        The unit served in the occupation force in Austria at war's end and after a month of recuperation, they were deployed as part of the massive Allied force that was to invade Japan that summer.

        They were on board ships heading for the Philippines when word came that President Truman had ordered atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

        The war quickly ended.

        “We owe our lives to Harry Truman,” said Mr. Mallin, who was a private in Company G of the 86th's 343rd Infantry Regiment, “because if he hadn't made that decision, a lot of us wouldn't have come home.”

        Louis Bures, a veteran of the 86th from Belford, N.J., said he saw the invasion plan.

        It had the 86th going in on the first wave, about 40 miles from Tokyo.

        “Being in the first wave, we would have had 100 percent casualties,” Mr. Bures said.

        In early 1946, the men were mustered out. The 86th Division itself was dissolved.

        Because the unit was eliminated shortly after the war, it was not until 1984 that a small group of Blackhawk veterans began holding annual reunions.

        Even though their numbers are dwindling, they still find members every year who weren't aware the group existed.

        Their purpose, Mr. Bookbinder said, is to “spread the word.”

        “Every now and then, I get an e-mail from a grandchild of one of our guys saying that grandpa died and never told them about what he did in the war,” Mr. Bookbinder said. “Usually, I can piece together what unit he was in and where he was. It makes the grandchildren feel good.”

        At this year's reunion, members have brought along photographs taken during the war years to be included in a book on the 86th Mr. Bookbinder is completing.

        Paul Koetter of Rochester, N.Y., brought his collection of dozens of black-and-white photographs that run the range of his war experience, from soldiers skinny-dipping in an Austrian stream to demolished German bridges and group photos of grim-faced Nazi officers captured by the 86th.

        “I just kept all the film I had, rolled it up in a ball and wrapped a handkerchief around it,” Mr. Koetter said. “I was determined not to lose it. So when we went home on leave in June, I got them all developed.”

        Wednesday, at the 86th's room in the Drawbridge, Mr. Koetter, Mr. Mallin, other veterans and their wives passed around the pictures and compared notes on where they were and what they were doing 57 years ago; laughing, joking and stirring up memories.

        “When these guys get together,” Mr. Mallin said, “something special happens.”


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