Sunday, May 29, 2016

Uncle Eugene

I knew my uncle Eugene Kessler mostly as a distant memory. He was one of my Mom's two older brothers (Donald was the oldest in a brood of five brothers and sisters), and what I remember most about Eugene almost 60 years later was that he was a kind, soft-spoken man, married to a kind, soft-spoken woman, Adelaide. They had two young daughters, Charmayne and Deb, who always made me nervous because girls were a totally different species to me at that age.

It seemed we only got together for holidays or family outings, which was not often. I do have memories of all my aunts and uncles, and their families, trying to cram into Nana and Grandpa Kessler's impossibly undersized home for those rare get-togethers.

Uncle Eugene
As I got older ("older" being a relative term here. I'm talking elementary school age) and developed an interest in history, Mom would tell us the story of Eugene's service in World War II.

It was a "wow" story, the kind if you tell it often enough it turns into family lore. As Mom told it, Eugene enlisted in the Army, despite the fact that he was deaf in one (left?) ear, and that he faked his way through the physical to get in. (Faked? Well, maybe. This is 1944 and frontline manpower is at a premium after three years of horrendous world war. Military doctors might look the other way when an enlistee walks through the door. Deaf in one ear? Never mind. As long as you've got a trigger finger, soldier, step over here.)

As the story goes, Eugene (who ended up in Company C of the 377th regiment of the 95th "Victory" Division in Gen. George Patton's famed Third Army), became either a platoon or company runner, relaying messages between units when radio signals otherwise might be compromised.

 Mom said there was one time when Eugene was running a message between units and he felt a tug on his left pant leg, but thought nothing of it — until he reached into his pocket for his cigarette lighter. Apparently, the pocket had been shot away by a sniper and the lighter, a gift from Adelaide, was gone.

Eugene never heard the shot because it came from his left side.


And for years, that was basically the only thing I knew about Eugene's war service. It seemed like it was enough. I mean, geez, I had an uncle who served in World War II. Wow.

But recently, thanks to Facebook, there's been something of a family renaissance. My youngest brother, Scott, has more or less become the family genealogist and his research about our uncle has been remarkable. Add to that the memories of Eugene's daughters and families, and a new picture comes into focus.

Like the battle for Metz. This was a brutal little slog that not many people know about. D-Day and Omaha Beach, or perhaps the Battle of the Bulge, draw tons of attention. But Metz, located in northeastern France near the frontier with the German border, was a nasty set-piece struggle of house-to-house fighting. It was a style of combat in which the desperate Germans had become deadly proficient, and which the U.S. Army had to learn on the fly.

The newly arrived 95th, in fact, would become known as "The Iron Men Of Metz," so named by the Germans who opposed them.

One day, Company C was in the process of taking Fort Bellecroix, one of the ancient outlying fortifications surrounding Metz, when suddenly, two huge explosions rocked the area. Apparently, the Germans had wired the place for destruction. Casualties were enormous as the company lost 17 men, with 59 wounded.

Eugene somehow survived the blast. His granddaughter, Brandy, wrote on Facebook that she understood that he took cover from the falling rocks and masonry by diving under a nearby vehicle. But he might also have paid a price. Brandy suggests that her grandfather may have suffered from a form of survivor's guilt, since many of his buddies were probably lost or injured in the blasts, and yet he lived. Scott, a nurse by profession, surmises that Eugene may have come home from the war with post traumatic stress disorder, which explains to me why I knew my uncle as a "kind, soft-spoken" man. My God, the horrors he must have seen — and kept to himself.

Until a month ago, I never heard this story before. It's more than family lore now.

It's heroic.

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