Remembering the fallen
More than 50 white marble pillars stand in hilltop rows or are scattered among scrub pines and bright purple locoweed in Aspen cemeteries.
“They were all Civil War veterans that came out West to seek their fortunes,” said Jim Markalunas, a longtime Aspenite, Korean War veteran and volunteer caretaker of the Aspen Grove Cemetery.
At a time when U.S. servicemen and women are under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans at home will celebrate Memorial Day, a holiday to remember those who died serving their country. Formerly known as Decoration Day, the holiday started when Union widows of the Civil War copied Confederate wives who decorated the graves of their fallen husbands.
Markalunas adeptly trudges through the overgrowth he said he plans to trim, pointing out gravestones tucked into low hillside aspen groves.
He pauses at the grave of Peter F. Galligan, who died one week before the signing of the World War I armistice.
“They had the whole town turn out for this funeral when they brought him back in 1919,” Markalunas said.
Crossed skis mark the graves of 10th Mountain Division veterans like Bertram Bidwell and Friedl Pfeifer, both ski paratroopers who went on to pioneer skiing in Aspen, and there’s a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a pack of Marlboros on the grave of Rick Buesch, a tribute his fellow Marines make to his memory every spring, Markalunas said.
“Cemeteries tell the stories of people’s lives,” Markalunas said, and Aspen’s holy grounds are full of stories about Aspenites who served.
Monday’s holiday is a tribute to the fallen, but the dead cannot tell their stories. So we spoke with three local World War II veterans about their memories.
“I’m not a hero. I’m just lucky,” said Bernard “Bernie” Young, 85, of Snowmass Village.
After graduating from the University of Arizona, Young became a “Repple Depple” ” short for “replacement depot” ” or a “canon fodder” stand-in for battle-weary Army 75th Infantry troops as they marched from the beaches of Normandy toward Berlin.
“I was just another of the dogfaces,” Young said. “I left a lot of my buddies in Europe. … There’s gotta’ be a God up there watching me.”
Young spent more than a year on the infantry front lines on the march to Berlin and V-E Day May 8, 1945. He remembers “incoming and outgoing mail,” or regular artillery rounds from unidentifiable sources, and lots of close calls.
“The heroes are right here,” Young said, pointing to a long list of the fallen from his division, mostly enlisted men. The officers, he said, were never that close to the front line.
Young then pointed to a photo of a snowy, deserted street in a small Belgian town.
In the photo, U.S. soldiers loiter near roadside snowbanks. He’s not in the shot, and he doesn’t know where it was taken, but Young said it’s his strongest memory of war: Standing around in thin leather boots, his feet wet and cold.
“I would’ve given my eyeteeth for a pair of Sorels,” Young said.
His other memory was being the underdog. At the age of 21 in the winter of 1944, Young found himself on the front lines in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, the last German push of World War II that resulted in massive U.S. casualties. The 500,000 inexperienced, ill-equipped U.S. troops were no match for the 500,000 battle-hardened, well-equipped Germans they confronted, Young said.
“The front came to us. … We got mauled,” Young said. “Half of our division [18,000 men] was either wounded, killed or captured.”
U.S. forces ran out of ammunition, and American tanks were no match for German Panzers; it was a battle of Plymouths vs. Mercedes, Young said. But the Germans eventually ran out of gasoline and the wave of surrendering Third Reich soldiers became a burden, Young said. It was hard to feed them all.
Young accepted the surrender of German General Fritz Heinrich Buechs and still carries the parade sword he took from the commander.
“We should have shot him right there,” Young joked. When he brought in the general, U.S. officers forced a group of soldiers out of a house they were occupying and put the general up in high style ” forcing U.S. soldiers out into the mud.
But most Germans fought to the last man, using “every trick in the book,” Young said.
German commanders sent spies wearing U.S. uniforms to direct advancing troop traffic in the wrong directions, and U.S. forces would be lured out of hiding by white surrender flags, only to be gunned down by snipers.
But there was no time to be afraid, Young said.
“You make up your mind what happens, happens,” Young said. “You don’t even try to protect yourself.”
Young didn’t talk about the war for 50 years, he said, adding there was no therapy for battle fatigue in the late 1940s.
And it wasn’t until he read “Citizen Soldiers” by Stephen E. Ambrose, about the experience of a college student becoming a warrior, that he was able to open up about his experience.
“I had never fired a gun, but all of the sudden you’re a ‘born killer,'” Young said.
“I think of the faces of the young guys I knew. When they got wounded, they just fell out of your life,” Young said. “They’re the ones who are the heroes. … These are the guys that Memorial Day is all about.”
But Young never questioned what he was doing as a young man in Belgium.
“I knew what we were doing there,” Young said. “If we hadn’t been there, we’d [now] be talking in German or Japanese.”
And battle changed him.
“All you see is what’s in front of you,” Young said of combat. “I got faith on the front line. Now I’m a student of the Bible,” Young said.
After the war, Young worked in real estate development in Arizona, and the father of three said he “made enough to become a ski bum” and moved to Aspen some 30 years ago.
While he was thousands of miles across the globe on a different WW II front, Basalt’s Chris Tessem, 82, tells a story oddly similar to Young.
Eighteen years old in 1943, Tessem, a Chicago native of Norwegian descent, was drafted into the army and served with the 11th Airborne Paratroopers in the Pacific.
“I was the kid of the outfit. They always called me ‘kid,'” he said.
Tessem spent more than a year on the front lines on campaigns against the Japanese in the Philippines, starting with the assault on Leyte and advancing to Manila. His unit was one of the first to occupy Japan.
“We were very tight,” Tessem said of his six-man squad.
He remembers saluting General Douglas MacArthur on a rural bridge at 2 a.m. one morning ” Tessem said the general had his own small army along with him. And Tessem’s unit resupplied troops that included Rod Serling, the man who would go on to create the TV show “The Twilight Zone.”
“It was pretty tough,” Tessem said of long stretches when troops were cut off from air support and dug in to muddy jungles, often living off roots for simple sustenance ” he came away from the war with a case of athlete’s foot that didn’t go away for years, he said.
“You could hear but you couldn’t see,” Tessem said of night patrols. During one jungle bivouac a fellow soldier took a shot at him because he coughed.
He remembers another night camping on a trail and the next day coming across a sea of Japanese foxholes nearby ” he believes the Japanese let them through because they thought Tessem’s troop was an advance of a larger force.
“I’m still here. I don’t know why. Why did some guys live and some didn’t?” Tessem asked. “I think most veterans feel that way.”
Tessem chalks it up to the “fortunes of war.”
He was in Luzon the same day Marines were raising the flag on Iwo Jima, but Tessem said his unit was saving the lives of more than 24,000 nuns and teachers from a Filipino refugee camp.
“Marines got all the credit, and all we got was a little article in the Chicago Sun-Times,” Tessem said.
From there to Manila, where Tessem came down with jaundice. He was “constantly in combat” all across the Philippines, and his memories of the fellow soldier who died before seeing his unborn son or giving treats to children in the Philippines and Japan are still fresh.
“It’s 60-some years ago but you remember it like it was yesterday,” Tessem said. “War is no fun. It’s not a show. It’s brutal, and death is very final.”
When the war ended in the Philippines, it was a matter of hours before Tessem’s unit shipped out to Okinawa, then flew on to Japan on a swanky commercial plane requisitioned for the war.
“The only thing missing was the stewardesses,” Tessem said.
At the town of Atsugi, near Tokyo, his unit raised the Stars and Stripes as one of the first group of U.S. occupational forces, then went on to Akita where he and his men destroyed Japanese planes.
“We burned an awful lot of airplanes,” Tessem said.
In January 1945, Tessem sailed for home. He still gets choked up when telling of his mother’s reaction on the day he appeared unannounced on the doorstep his family’s home in Chicago.
Like Bernie Young, Tessem never told his own children stories from the war. But recently he started writing his remembrances, and thanks to the Veterans History Project (see sidebar), Tessem has a video record of his story.
Tessem said many young people don’t know that more than 16 million Americans served during World War II, and more than 440,000 died.
Tessem first came to Aspen in the late 1950s and after a career in Chicago, he and his wife made Basalt home. Tessem found work in the transportation department with the town of Snowmass Village. He is now retired, and regularly flies a U.S. flag over his back porch.
“I’m pretty proud of it,” he said.
While Tessem was slogging through the jungles of Leyte, Dick Ryman of Glenwood Springs was just offshore, a torpedo man third class on the destroyer USS Wilson.
Born in Nebraska, Ryman signed up for the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army. He remembers sitting on his bunk one day writing a letter to his girlfriend, then the next thing he knew Ryman was onboard the Wilson steaming for Guadalcanal.
“It was just ” bam! ” it happened that fast,” he said.
Ryman survived the campaign in the Philippines and the 10-week invasion of Okinawa, when Japanese fighter pilots turned themselves into human missiles.
“Our main problem up there was the kamikazes,” Ryman said, and April 16, 1945, was a day that would change his life.
“This plane came in and it was diving right for the ship. It hit the water about 100 yards out, and it glanced up and the plane went right over my head,” Ryman said.
The plane catapulted over the ship and landed on the other side. The engine dislodged and drilled into the 40 mm guns just 6 feet above Ryman, and a 500-pound bomb fell off the kamikaze plane and went right beneath his feet. The detonator exploded, killing a number of sailors below decks, but the bomb itself did not explode.
“It was something I’ll never forget,” Ryman said with a subtle laugh. “I’m chuckling about it only because I lived.”
The USS Wilson was a picket station, using radar to intercept incoming Japanese fighters, mostly kamikazes.
“Swarms of ’em would continue to come in,” Ryman said of the suicide planes. And of the 151 destroyers at Okinawa, 121 were hit by Kamikazes, Ryman said. “You were on edge all the time.”
In part because of the suicide pilots, Navy losses in Okinawa exceeded U.S. Navy losses in all battles in history, Ryman said. “It was a terrible campaign.”
Ryman said his memory of war is “a lot of sadness.” He added, however, that “it just makes me so grateful I’m still here.”
“We had to be there,” Ryman said, adding that he never questioned his mission. “We had a reason to be in World War II. We were attacked. We went for their throat, and we won.”
Ryman’s greatest lesson from the experience: “That someone is watching over us,” he said. “I’m very blessed.”
After the war, Ryman attended the University of Nebraska on the GI Bill. His work in insurance first brought him to Denver, then Glenwood Springs in 1968.
Ryman was invited to the Elks Lodge in Aspen for a Veterans Day dinner last year and was inspired to join the group.
“It made me think that someone still appreciated the World War II veterans,” Ryman said.
Charles Agar’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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