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Forever tied to strangers in arms

By Seymour I. "Spence" Toll During some part of my daily life for the past 66 years, I have relived the night of Dec. 16, 1944.

By Seymour I. "Spence" Toll

During some part of my daily life for the past 66 years, I have relived the night of Dec. 16, 1944.

World War II's Battle of the Bulge began at dawn that day, when a German force of 200,000 attacked 75,000 American troops defending an 80-mile front in the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg. On the befogged and bitterly freezing first night of the Wehrmacht's assault, as an unremarkable 19-year-old American infantryman, I was wounded in a German rocket mortar (or "screaming meemie") attack.

Earlier that autumn, I had been sent to a combat infantry division to replace a soldier who had been killed or wounded. Everyone in my new outfit was as much a stranger to me as the casualty I had replaced. Most were, like me, no longer boys, but not yet men.

Before I had the opportunity to develop friendships of true depth with even the few members of my rifle platoon, I became a casualty who was to spend the next six months among other strangers in U.S. Army hospitals in Luxembourg, France, England, and the United States. And about a month after it began, Hitler's bid to split the British-American front - and the alliance - would fail.

For several hours during that first night of the attack, our rifle squad had been bellied down in a frozen patch of forest. We were there to defend it when bursts of rocket mortar shrapnel ripped into the squad. The enemy shelling was so efficient that it covered every square meter of ground.

Although inscrutable fate doomed other squad members, it spared me with a wound rather than death. Sixty-six years later, I can't remember where I put my reading glasses a few minutes ago. And yet every day, with perfect clarity, I can hear the dying cries of others in my rifle squad through the screams of the rocket mortar shells. I was to have a profound kinship with these strangers for the rest of my incredibly fortunate life.

Violent, untimely death is the tragedy of warfare. During World War II, what gave that tragedy its dimension of kinship even with virtual strangers - beyond the traditional esprit de corps in any outfit of soldiers, sailors, or Marines - was a common cause.

In my 85 years, World War II has been the only war in which essentially our entire citizenry was united in such a genuinely decent cause. Of course, support for the war wasn't monolithic, but the roots of citizens' massive involvement were deep. Americans have never been more willing to make whatever human and material sacrifices were necessary to defeat those who threatened our lives and liberty, and those of millions of others around the world.

Here at home, the war had an endless immediacy. Millions were in the service, and throughout the country their uniforms were as common as civilian attire.

Virtually every family had a deep emotional involvement in the war. My brother was a naval officer in combat in the Pacific, and our parents, like countless others, lived in constant dread of seeing a Western Union messenger at the front door with a telegram of condolence from the secretary of war or of the Navy.

In the midst of the chaos of combat, our cause had a pervasive clarity. We understood what we were fighting for, which is why we were doing it willingly - and why, although they were still near-strangers to me when they were killed, I have felt a kinship with the members of my rifle squad for the rest of my life, a life that has been as long and fortunate as theirs were brief and tragic.

It's a kinship that survivors like me share with millions of other World War II servicemen and women who were killed before they had a chance to live a full life. To have given their lives as my rifle squad members did was to have defended and honored the humanity at the heart of the war we were all fighting.