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'What Memorial Day is all about'

May 30, 2004|By TAMELA BAKER

HAGERSTOWN

Most of the attention was on the National World War II Memorial dedication ceremony in Washington on Saturday, but at Rose Hill Cemetery, Executive Vice President Bill Divelbiss thanked the "faithful few" who observed the cemetery's own Memorial Day tradition, a ceremony honoring lives lost in service to the United States military.

Or, as Divelbiss put it, "what Memorial Day is really all about."

An honor guard displayed the colors as Divelbiss launched into an a capella version of the national anthem.

The guest speaker, World War II veteran George Cole of Martinsburg, W.Va., spoke only for a minute or two. But afterward, nearly everyone in attendance lined up to shake his hand and to thank the former prisoner of war for his military service.

Everyone, that is, except Gene Danfelt, a Marine from Williamsport, who saluted.

Cole, 79, had kept his remarks brief because he didn't want to hold anyone up from their weekend activities, he said.

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It wasn't that he didn't have a riveting story to tell.

Sent to France after the D-Day invasion, Cole fought "all the way across France" to the Ardennes, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He routinely performed reconnaissance missions, slipping behind enemy lines and then slipping back.

His luck ran out in a two-story house, where he was captured and nearly killed. A Nazi SS trooper put a gun to his head and was ready to shoot, Cole said.

But earlier in the day, he'd given food to two German POWs "because they looked like they were hungry," he said. They spoke up for their benefactor, and Cole's life was spared.

Cole managed to escape after 30 days of captivity, hiding first behind a wood pile, then spending two days and nights in a large barn. Getting back to the Allied position involved a series of stealth maneuvers - sometimes even crawling underneath German vehicles and hanging on while they were in motion. He doesn't remember how long it took to get back to friendly troops.

At Camp Lucky Strike near LeHavre, France, where former POWs gathered to recover a bit before going home, he got to meet Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"He stopped there to eat," Cole said. "They were trying to get all the best food for him, but he told them to put it away and just serve him like everybody else."

Cole was so impressed with the future president that he named his son after him.

Though he admits being scared during his ordeal, Cole said he never really thought about the possibility he might not make it home.

"When you're 18, you don't think anything's gonna happen to you," he said.

But Saturday's ceremony, with its piper playing "Amazing Grace" and buglers playing "Taps," was a reminder that many young men were not so fortunate.

Even so, Danfelt seemed to display the same daring spirit that Cole had 60 years ago.

He told Cole he expects to be sent to Iraq soon.

"Looking forward to it," he said.

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