Area high school students got some unvarnished truths about World War II during a veterans conference held last week in Washington.

What they heard was not always pretty or politically correct, but rather how the war was seen by those who fought it.

The occasion was a two-day conference sponsored by the World War II Veterans Committee featuring veterans as speakers, with more than 100 students from area high schools attending.

Students from the schools participating, including Gonzaga, Good Counsel, St. Albans, Madeira, Bishop O'Connell, St. Stephen's and Centreville High School, introduced the World War II vets.

Donald R. Burgett, a member of the 101st Airborne Division and the author of a number of books on the European campaign, described the horrific fighting the division saw in France and Holland and in the Battle of the Bulge.

"Most of my buddies were killed--blown apart," he said.

Burgett described hand-to-hand fighting. "I saw throats cut," Burgett told the students. "You had to rip lips off to keep from being buried in the ground yourself."

By the time they arrived at Hitler's nest in Berchtesgaden at the end of the war, only 11 out of the 200 men who dropped into Normandy were still around, Burgett said. "The 11 of us sat on Hitler's bed, in Hitler's home, and drank Hitler's cognac," he told the students.

The soldiers were preparing to be sent to the Pacific Theater to invade Japan when word came that the war had ended. "We've been criticized for dropping the atomic bomb," Burgett noted. "My answer to that is, if there'd never been a Pearl Harbor, there would never have been a Hiroshima."

John E. Dolibois, the last surviving member of the five-man team that interrogated the German war criminals before the Nuremberg trials, spoke of his close encounters with Nazi leaders such as Hermann Goering, Hans Frank and Robert Ley, describing their pathetic vanity and ploys as they awaited trial.

The notorious antisemitic, Julius Streicher, scored the lowest on IQ tests the Allies gave to the Nazi war criminals, Dolibois noted. "He wasn't a moron, but he was pushing it," Dolibois said.

Retired Air Force Col. Barney Oldfield, who served as public affairs officer for Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II, also attended the conference. Oldfield recalled being sent out before D-Day to requisition a huge volume of condoms, which soldiers like to place over the barrel of their rifles to keep rain out. "I couldn't swear they were all used for what they were intended," Oldfield said.

The young woman behind the counter at the pharmacy where he placed the order was a bit nonplused, he recalled. Oldfield speculated that somewhere in Britain, an elderly English woman is still talking about the day "she met the Yank sex maniac."

Veterans' Benefits Fair

About 40,000 veterans live in Maryland, including a large number in the Washington area, but many of them are unaware of their entitlements for their time in service, officials say.

To help remedy the situation, the Maryland Veterans Commission, together with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the D.C Veterans Hospital, is sponsoring a health and benefits fair on the grounds of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The emphasis is on veterans who served in Vietnam or in the Persian Gulf War. "We are also reaching out to women veterans who may have problems resulting from their service making them eligible for VA health care," said retired Marine Capt. Ned Dolan, of the Maryland Veterans Commission for the 8th Congressional District.

The health portion of the fair will include information on enrolling in VA health care service, as well as testing for hearing, blood pressure and glucose. Counselors will also discuss available benefits.

The event will be held in the B Building at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, USUHS, 4301 Jones Bridge Rd.

Although the fair is directed primarily to veterans living in Montgomery County and secondarily to others living in Maryland, veterans, including those from out of state, will not be turned away, according to Dolan. Veterans should bring a copy of their DD 214 discharge papers or other evidence of their status.

Tomb Guards Pay Tribute

More than 140 former and current Tomb Guards gathered to pay their respects at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery over the Veterans Day weekend.

The Society of the Honor Guard, a new group that includes tomb guards who served from 1941 to the present day, held a memorial service and wreath-laying ceremony Sunday at Arlington Cemetery.

Among those in attendance were one of the earliest sergeants of the guard, George Koch, who guarded the tomb in 1941, and the first female sergeant of the guard, Staff Sgt. Tonya Bell.

After a wreath was placed at the tomb, each of the guards, past and present, walked up to place a rose beside the wreath.

"We all share the common bond of having had the unique responsibility of rendering honors and providing security to this country's most sacred military monument," said Neale Cosby, president of the group. "Serving on the Tomb Guard was a motivating factor that has been the measuring stick of our lives."

Honoring Other Vietnam Heroes

Ruth Coder Fitzgerald's dream of honoring her brother and others whom she calls the hidden casualties of Vietnam is getting closer to reality.

Her brother, John Keath Coder, an Air Force helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam, died in 1992 at age 49 of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer that his doctors believe may have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange.

Soon after her brother's funeral, Fitzgerald, a resident of Fredericksburg, Va., created an organization called the Vietnam War in Memory Memorial Plaque Project and has been waging a grass-roots campaign to have a plaque placed near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial honoring those who died after the war ended.

The campaign drew the attention of Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), who introduced a bill Nov. 10 to authorize the placement of a 3-by-3-foot plaque in the general vicinity of the Vietnam memorial. Design of the plaque and its inscription would be overseen by the American Battle Monument Commission in consultation with other agencies.

The bill has more than 100 co-sponsors from both parties.

"There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men and women who served honorably and dutifully for America and had their lives cut short because of it," said Gallegly. "Perhaps more importantly, their families deserve a symbol of healing, something they can touch and remember."

Military Matters appears every other week. Steve Vogel can be reached at vogels@washpost.com via e-mail.

CAPTION: Among those in attendance is one of the earliest sergeants of the guard, George Koch, left, who guarded the tomb in 1941. Below, the Society of the Honor Guard, which includes guards who served from 1941 to the present day, gathers on the steps of the amphitheater for a photo after the ceremony.

CAPTION: More than 140 former and current guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery held a wreath-laying over the Veterans Day weekend.