A reunion in gratitude for the boys of Company D
The Washington Post
There were bowls of pretzels and chips on the coffee table, and finger sandwiches in the dining room, which his wife, Johanna, had decked out in red, white and blue. They had even ordered a sheet cake decorated with white frosting roses and a battle insignia.
Eddie peered out the living-room window and tugged his shirt sleeve down to cover the blue numbers tattooed on his forearm.
Over the front porch hung a banner welcoming the old soldiers to a reunion of the 3rd Armored Spearhead Division, Company D, 32nd Regiment. More than 50 years had passed without a word. Lives were lived and lives were lost. Dashing soldiers became stooped grandfathers. Memories, like snapshots, faded away. Eddie Willner was a lost piece of Company D's history.
Lost, that is, until last weekend, when the faces of a half-century ago appeared at the Willners' front door in Falls Church, Va., and the men of Company D — the men who 57 years ago gave Eddie Willner his life back — came to his home to honor him.
He was 18 when they found him, half-dead. After surviving five years in concentration camps, where both of his parents were killed, Eddie and a Dutch friend named Mike Swaab fled their SS guards while on a death march in the waning weeks of World War II. Four others were shot in the escape, and a German shepherd chasing them bit Mike in the leg. Crawling at night from bush to bush, the two Jewish teenagers slowly made their way toward a sound they recognized as U.S. artillery.
On April 12, 1945, they heard the rumble of tanks and ran out in their ragged prison uniforms, pointing to the identification numbers tattooed on their arms. The "A" stood for Auschwitz.
"They could have just thrown us K-rations and moved on," explained Eddie, now 76. Survivors liberated from the camps were supposed to be sent to compounds for displaced persons. But Eddie and his friend pointed out German foxholes they had spotted during their three days of hiding, and the Americans easily took the nearby village as they pressed east toward the Elbe River.
Eddie and Mike were not much younger than their rescuers, and they blended into the unit, making themselves useful to the kitchen crew. There was no big debate, no official decision, to let them stay. Both boys had lost their entire families in the concentration camps, and with no one else left to claim them, Company D did.
With the war ending, the company turned back, garrisoning in an old school near Frankfurt. Eddie stayed for nearly six months, until the last of Company D left. Then, sponsored by a cousin in Connecticut, he made his way to America, and immediately joined the Army. He never saw anyone from Company D again.
Did they realize, he wondered, what they meant to him?
Eddie's wife, Johanna, called out to her husband: "Pepsi is here."
Louis "Pepsi" Decola had been one of the mess sergeants. He had given Eddie one of his extra uniforms and helped fatten up the two starved survivors. Now Eddie grabbed his cane and hobbled as fast as he could to the front porch.
"There he is! Hey, buddy! How are you?" Pepsi called out, hurrying into Eddie's waiting embrace. The two men held tight. When he finally spoke, Eddie's voice was choked with tears.
"Oh," Eddie cried on Pepsi's shoulder. "Oh God, oh God."
"I know," Pepsi murmured. "Would you have recognized me?"
Pepsi was eager to catch up. "I'm going to ask you some questions, because my mind has slipped," he said. Now 83 and living in Massachusetts with his wife of 54 years, Pepsi has retired from the diner business. He gently guided Eddie back to the recliner.
"You owe me a shirt, you know!" Pepsi teased. Eddie grinned as Johanna brought out the brand-new camouflage uniform he had bought to give Pepsi.
"OK," said Eddie, "I give you back your uniform."
Pepsi had brought along his battered old autograph book and pointed out Eddie's signature along with the rest of the company's. There had been 130 men in all. Seventeen were still alive, that they knew of. They had gathered for reunions every year since 1972, but no one had known what became of the two boys they had picked up that day.
In recent years, as his health spiraled, Johanna noticed he spoke more often, and more urgently, of "the boys" from Company D. A few years ago, with the 50th anniversary of the war's end at hand, she began scouring military papers for reunion notices, and sent letters asking veterans if they knew of anyone from the old unit. She tracked down the company commander, and because Eddie was too weak to travel to their annual reunion, they began laying plans for one at Eddie's house.
"He talks about all these people all the time. It puts him in touch with his real past," Johanna said. "These are the people who made this life possible."
As more of "the boys" arrived, with families in tow, the Willners' small house filled with 50, maybe 60 people. Five of Eddie's six grown children were there, along with some of his 11 grandchildren. Three of his kids had gone into the military; another is teaching at West Point. He was so proud of them all, their photographs and commendations on display for Company D to see, a copy of the poem a son wrote 30 years ago about the Holocaust tucked in a folder at his side.
A naturalized U.S. citizen, Eddie served in the Army for more than 20 years, retiring as a major. He then worked as a linguist for the Commerce Department. Being of service was important — he wanted to show his country, and now these men, how grateful he was. This party was a small way of doing that.
Everyone lined up in the hallway to get name tags and then make their way to Eddie's recliner, where he eagerly peered into each face but recognized only Pepsi and Elmer Hovland. A beloved mess sergeant who had befriended Eddie had died two years ago, and Eddie informed everyone that Mike, the Dutchman, was gone 12 years now.
"See my license plate out there?" Eddie said, nodding out the window to the red sport-utility vehicle parked beneath a huge U.S. flag. The personalized tag number — A-5662 — was the same one tattooed on Mike's arm at Auschwitz.
"Is this Eddie?"
"You know who this guy is, Eddie?"
"Eddie, you remember me?"
Eddie shook his head, but told his story to each of them, again and again, pausing for sips of ice water from the glass trembling in his hand. They struggled to hear him as his voice faded.
"Take your time, Eddie," Pepsi urged.
"I weighed only 75 pounds," Eddie whispered.
The guests consulted a map propped up behind a menorah on a console in the living room. The Combat Trail of the 32nd Armored Regiment started with a red line at Normandy and snaked east across France and Germany, stopping at Dessau. That would have been where they picked up Eddie, they said, pointing, somewhere in the Harz Mountains.
Now their wives took pictures of them with this fragile stranger whose life they changed with an act of compassion so casual some could no longer place it.
"There were no questions asked," Pepsi said. "They were just two ragged kids. We took them in. He was human. He was somebody's child, he was somebody's son."
One of the wives, perched on the sofa, contemplated this. "The whole story comes down to luck, doesn't it?" she concluded.
Eddie began telling it again. "Sshhh," someone said, all chatter falling still as they tried once more to hear: He had been taken prisoner at 12 when his family, having fled Germany, was betrayed while hiding in a village on the French-Belgian border. His mother was sent straight to the gas chamber at Auschwitz; his father had been killed on his 50th birthday, because 50 was considered too old to be of much use at forced labor.
A dog barking outside drowned out Eddie's voice again. It was Eddie's dog, Teddy — a German shepherd. Eddie would have nothing else. His shepherds have all been gentle and good, reminders that cruelty is not innate to any species, but must be taught.
The boys of Company D cut the sheet cake, carefully leaving their insignia intact. They admired the helmet Hovland brought, with holes in it from the bullet that had pierced it in Cologne, causing no harm other than singed hair but "making me plenty mad," its wearer recalled.
Eddie was growing tired. Someone's grandson asked if he could see the numbers on Eddie's arm, and Eddie obliged. The men headed outside for a group photo on the front porch. They presented Eddie with a signed copy of the regiment's history, inscribed: "To our good friend."
Fifty-seven years slipped by, and the forgotten survivor stood unsteadily in the arms of the rescuers who appeared, again, when he needed them.
Eddie had an eloquent toast prepared for the reunion banquet the next night, and an excerpt from his favorite poem by Goethe that he meant to read. But in this moment, there were other words more important.
"Thank you," he told the boys of Company D.