For World War II Division, Reunion Is a Bittersweet End
The World War II story of the Army's 76th Infantry Division, which began 65 years ago at Fort Meade, has come full circle.
Veterans of the division, which served in the Battle of the Bulge and assaulted the Nazis' Siegfried Line while fighting its way across Western Europe in 1945, recently held in Washington what the 76th Infantry Division Association decided would be its last reunion.
The division was activated for World War II service at Fort Meade in Maryland in June 1942.
"We began in the Washington area, and we're ending in the Washington area," said Al Pollack, 82, one of about 80 veterans who attended the reunion.
"It was wonderful," Pollack added. "It was really sad, too, because we realized it was the last time."
The association had been faced with dwindling attendance in recent years, as more veterans passed away and travel became more difficult. "It was felt that the time had come," said Pollack, of Levittown, Pa.
Some of the veterans attended the reunion in wheelchairs or used walkers.
"You could see the attrition year by year," said Jim Barrett, 84, of Reston, who served as a lieutenant with the division's 385th Infantry Regiment. "Guys walking down the street picking out restaurants a few years ago weren't able to do that anymore, and that was hard to see."
During the Oct. 25-28 reunion, based at the Crowne Plaza Hotel near Dulles International Airport, veterans visited the National World War II Memorial on the Mall and held a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
Many family members attended, including some who had lost veterans who served in the division -- "a lot of widows, sons, brothers and other family members who just wanted to make a connection to their loved ones" by meeting Army buddies, Pollack said.
"It was really good and melancholic at the same time," said Don Tarkenton of Rockville, who attended with his veteran father, William, 80, of Chesapeake, Va. "He knew it was the last time he'd see these guys."
The 76th, nicknamed the "Onaway Division," went into action along the Sauer River near the Luxembourg-Germany border in February 1945, preparing to assault Nazi defenses that were part of the Siegfried Line. Many members of the division were killed by German fire while crossing the river.