Memorial Day brings back memories for WWII veteran
Eighty-six-year-old H.C. Moretz Jr. of Boone knows that he's "one of the lucky ones" who came home after World War II.
Memories and medals help piece together Moretz's combat experiences as he served his country with pride and was mere seconds from becoming a statistic.
As the oldest of seven children raised on the family farm near Boone, Moretz and three of his brothers were in the military at the same time, "but all six boys were in service at some point," he said.
Brother Roy went into the Army and Clayton, the Navy.
"I wanted the Navy but when I reported for duty, they didn't need sailor," Moretz said. "I had a choice then of joining the paratroopers or infantry. I sure didn't want to jump out of any airplane."
His story unfolds six decades later from his home on Stadium Drive, where he and Phyllis, his wife of nearly 59 years, call home.
A young Herbert C. "Junior" Moretz, was drafted in July 1944 at age 19; he returned home a decorated veteran two years later, but not without scars.
His journey began with 17 weeks of Infantry Replacement training in Fort McClellan, Ala. After a 10-day visit home, he reported to Fort Mead, Md., and then to Camp Miles Standish in Boston from where he shipped out to Europe.
"On a really cold Christmas Eve in 1944, we were in a tent camp in LeHarve, France, across the English Channel from England. The following day, packed into freight cars, we rode the train near Paris. From there, traveling in open cattle trucks, we headed to the front lines."
Within days, he was in combat action assigned to Company A, 309th Regiment of the 78th Lighting Division.
"When I reported to my company commander, I was carrying a World War I rifle and bayonet. He said, 'Oh boy, we have a sniper.' I replied, 'Oh boy, we don't, this is all they had to give me.' A few days later I had an M-1 rifle and a modern bayonet."
Moretz said he went through training with a new M-1 rifle and into combat with World War I equipment.
His combat introduction was defending a "Pill Box," a concrete bunker, 6-feet thick, in Belgium along the Siegfried Line.
"The fog was so thick, we could hardly see," Moretz said. "My first sergeant said, 'Get up here where you can see and start shooting. You'll want to be able to tell your grandchildren about this.'"
Moretz was "scared to death," he said. "Artillery fire was so close that dirt was blown in the trench on us. We held the pill box and spent weeks patrolling in the Hertigan Forest to keep Germans from fortifying the area."
Also battling snow and cold, Moretz was among those soldiers whose feet literally froze in the trenches as they tried to sleep.
"When the snow began to thaw, we launched a drive through the plains of Germany, taking small towns and villages," Moretz said.
His unit received the Presidential Unit Medal for taking and holding the Schwammenauel Dam.
While gathered at the top of a long, steep hill to start the night attack on the dam, Moretz recalled, "Our mess sergeant brought us hot food, including fried chicken. We only got the smell, there was no time to eat."
"We were in a horizontal line heading down the wooded hill toward the dam," Moretz said. "It was so dark that each man to the right was responsible for keeping contact with the person on his left. I was near the end of the line. Somehow, six to eight of us got disconnected. As we approached a ridge, all hell broke loose below us. In the dark, we didn't know which side to join.
Hand-to-hand fighting began. A number of Americans were lost. We were able to join our company the next morning. The urgency of this action was to take the dam before the Germans blew it up and flooded the area as a defense."
His unit received its second Presidential Unit Medal for Crossing the Ludendorf Bridge on the Rhine River near Remegan. "This was a railroad bridge, and the German Air force was trying to bomb the bridge as we crossed," he said.
The width of the Rhine River found Moretz thinking, as he crossed, that it was too wide for him to swim back.
"I knew there wasn't much equipment on the other side," he said. "The Germans also had the bridge wired to blow, but the combat engineers were able to cut the wires. We were forced to march for two straight days to get across before they could destroy the bridge from the air."
Within the week, the railway bridge collapsed.
A couple of days after crossing the Rhine, German machine gun fire separated Moretz and five of his buddies from their company. "We were hiding behind small pine trees, lying on the ground - a German machine gun in front of us and one in the back of us. If we moved, they fired and bark flew off the trees."
This continued for sometime with everything looking "rather hopeless."
"Finally, a tank rescued us," he said.
Soon afterward, the soldiers were lined up in the woods, again lying down behind trees.
"We were told to move up hill 20 to 30 feet," Moretz said. "The soldier below me moved to the same tree I had just moved from. As we hit the ground, a German 88 Artillery shell landed right where I had been. The concussion from the shell blew me off the ground, my helmet and rifle both flew into the woods. Shrapnel from the shell bent the bolt on my rifle; it no longer worked. A piece of shrapnel tore out the seat of my pants and stuck to my buttocks. The Good Lord was looking out for me."
But he was not out of danger. "The war was winding down; our company was cleaning out pockets that had been bypassed. A tank had sprayed a wooded area with 50-caliber machine gun fire; about a dozen of us were told to go into the area and clean it out. 'Hitler Youth' were waiting and began firing. Another wounded soldier and I ran behind a small bank. Dirt was flying all around our feet, but we made it. I didn't know until then that I could outrun bullets."
When first assigned to the 78th Division and entering combat, Moretz was among strangers.
"You make friends quickly and easily in these situations," he said. "It does something to you to see a comrade get killed, knowing you have to go on."
He met up with George Winebarger, a neighbor from back home, on the ship en route to Europe, but other faces were unfamiliar, at first.
Moretz returned home with memories and medals. Today, he looks solemnly at the little box that holds his Purple Heart, as well as a Good Conduct Medal and his Infantry Combat badge and others.
"I feel this was a war for which a man felt it was his duty to serve," he surmised.
And he did live to tell his grandchildren all about it.
Read more about HC Moretz Jr. in an upcoming issue of The Watauga Democrat. He not only served his country with pride and valor, but he also has made significant contributions to his community through the years.