Last night, my family lost a beloved relative and friend. My great-great Uncle Fred, who turned 100 years of age this past September 11, passed away yesterday. Known for his colorful collection of stories he experienced over a century, he was witness to some of the most compelling moments in the history of the 20th Century. He was telling these stories with sharp clarity and witty humor literally until his dying day.
While it is impossible for me to recount his entire life story at this time, I nevertheless must share with you some of the tales he shared with me. Fred was born on September 11, 1908, and lived in the same house of his birth up until a week ago. There in Altoona, PA, he attended Catholic School and lived with his eleven brothers and sisters in the industrial railroad hotbed that was their hometown. Here, he survived yellow fever epidemics and the great 1918 Influenza Pandemic.
Fred was ten years old when World War I ended. Just a few months ago, he again recalled to me his memory of the war's end. It was November 11, 1918 in the dead of night. Fred and his family were awakened by noise across the street - neighbors yelling. Being curious boys, Fred and his brothers ventured out in the cold November evening. Quickly, they had learned that the Great War had ended! Partying in the streets ensued, with Fred and his brothers skipping up and down the street yelling, "We've caught the Kaiser!"
Last summer my dad, brother, and I were looking through Uncle Fred's photo albums ranging from the 1910s through the 1980s. In one of them, I found photos from one of their family trips in 1932 here in Gettysburg. As a family genealogist and Civil War buff, these yellowed pictures are among my favorite family photos. In these photos, Fred and his siblings posed on cannons on Hancock Avenue and in front of the PA Memorial. There was another photo that I wasn't sure about. It pictured them sitting on the benches of an unknown monument with a bust of a general atop it. Only two weeks ago did I discover what monument it was when I was touring the National Cemetery with Ranger Eric Campbell. As it turns out, it was the grave of Gen. Charles Collis. Thus, a mystery behind a family photo was solved.
Fred eventually went onto college and got a teaching job at a junior high school in his hometown. In 1942, he was drafted into the Army at age 35 (an "old" draftee indeed). Not a lover of Army Life, he was a member of the 80th "Blue Ridge" Division and trained in Tennessee and the deserts of Arizona. Later that year, he and ten thousand other troops boarded the ship Queen Mary in New York City, bound for England. Fred recalled this journey to me with both disgust and humor. "Everybody was vomiting from sea sickness," he remembered. "But not me. I learned to sway back and forth with the boat so I didn't get sick!"
I've long considered Fred to be a "Radar" O'Reilly of the 88th Division. As an adjutant attached to the division's medical detachment, he became proficient in typing, form filing, taking red tape shortcuts, and procuring supplies for the men as well as his own needs through a variety of methods. Luckily, I have a copy of Fred's company records. In this, he offers detailed description of where he was everyday, where his unit was sent to, and even the weather. I am indeed lucky to have such copies.
Fred landed on Omaha Beach, Normandy about a week after the initial invasion landings. From there, he joined the 88th in the Allied push across Europe. In this time he was witness to the Battle in the Bocage, the Battle of the Bulge, and befriended a family and their son, named Theo Mersch, in Luxembourg. Luckily for my family, Fred had a camera with him, and took dozens of photos to chronicle this historic time. Fred was among the few soldiers who liberated the Ohrdruf camp of the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp system in Germany on April 10, 1945. He took photos of this as well. Needless to say, they are among the most grizzly photos I have ever seen. Teary eyed, Fred once admitted to me, "It is something I will never forget."
Happier times followed Fred's discharge from the Army in 1946. Shortly after the war, he married Margaret (my late aunt). They took a cross country honeymoon road trip in a Nash 1949 model automobile and drove through the National Parks. (They even had a close encounter in Yellowstone where a bear came up to their car window. Here, Aunt Margie threw out a bag of cookies so the bear would go away.) They eventually had three children. Their marriage would be one which lasted over fifty years.
I will always remember Uncle Fred for his stories; those of his childhood, the war, his teachings, and his countless traveling adventures. His wit and sharp memory remained in tact until the day of his passing. My father and I were in the midst of writing a book about Fred's life, and we were able to read the opening chapter to him at his 100th birthday last year. Although I am extremely saddened by his passing, I am also glad that I had two decades of visits and stories with him. Even though Fred won't be able to read the eventual book which will chronicle his amazing story, some of you may be able to someday. In a way, that is even more fitting. After all, he lived this amazing story. Rest in peace, Fred...