Veteran Recounts Battles, Both Past and Ongoing
A perfect wind blew at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday, a crisp breeze that caused the flags to flutter cinematically.
Tourists walked about, taking in the grid of gravestones through the eyepieces of their camcorders. Teenagers hunched their shoulders and thrust their hands into sweat shirt pockets to fend off the chill. Veterans squinted into the sunlight. No longer the slim, uniformed warriors of their youth, they showed their allegiance mainly through their hats: baseball caps embroidered with the battalion or unit, ship or squadron with which they'd served.
You could have asked any one of them to tell you his story -- what had brought him to this garden of stone, what he remembered about the mess hall or the battlefield -- and he (or she) would have been happy to oblige.
I happened to ask Col. Douglas Dillard, 83, U.S. Army, retired and living in Bowie with his wife of 63 years, Virginia. He had on a brown leather jacket and a hat that read "551st Parachute Infantry Battalion." His eyes were behind aviator sunglasses, and when he spoke there was a hint of his native Georgia in his voice.
"I joined the Army when I was 16 and jumped over France when I was 17," Col. Dillard told me.
His mother had signed the papers allowing him to enlist on July 3, 1942. "She was kind of upset about it, but I'd really been bugging her about letting me join." And since her husband -- his stepfather -- was an Army sergeant deployed to North Africa, it wasn't as if she could say she didn't know what he was getting into.
Then-Pvt. Dillard was assigned to the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, becoming one of those soldiers who is able to suppress the understandable reluctance humans have to throw themselves out of perfectly good airplanes.
On Aug. 15, 1944, he stepped into the air above southern France. His unit fought in the Battle of the Bulge in conditions so brutal and quarters so tight that at one point, Col. Dillard said, "Lieutenant Durkee, who's buried over there, he yelled to fix bayonets and let's go."
That was Jan. 4, 1945, in Dairomont, Belgium, one of the last bayonet charges of the war.
Col. Dillard didn't have a bayonet -- he had a Thompson submachine gun that was frozen and useless -- so he pulled out his .45-caliber sidearm and used it instead.
"I can remember that as if it happened yesterday, the Germans lying there with their breath coming out like it was steam."
In the next war -- Korea -- Col. Dillard received a commission and worked on clandestine missions that sent men behind enemy lines into North Korea and Manchuria.