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Veterans who braved chill and danger of battle get warm reception in Hagerstown

November 12, 2008|By DAN DEARTH

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HAGERSTOWN -- A little cold weather didn't deter two 83-year-old paratroopers from attending the Veterans Day ceremony Tuesday in downtown Hagerstown.

"We've been cold before -- believe me," John Leather said as he pushed the wheelchair in which his friend, Fred Wishard, was sitting.

In the winter of 1944, both men served with the 17th Airborne Division during the Battle of the Bulge, a German offensive that was designed to break the American lines in the mountain regions of Belgium, France and Luxembourg.

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The battle was waged from December 1944 to January 1945 in temperatures that often dipped below freezing. In many cases, the scantily supplied paratroopers used nothing but grenades and rifles to fight German tanks.

After two weeks of fighting, Wishard said, he was wounded by an artillery shell. He lost part of his foot and laid in the snow for about 30 hours until the Germans picked him up.

Wishard said he was put in a boxcar and taken into Germany just east of the Rhine River, where he convalesced in a building with wounded Germans.

Wishard said the Germans treated him well, and then he was liberated by American soldiers on Good Friday in 1945.

Leather said he didn't know Wishard until they met at a military reunion after the war.

"We were in the same regiment, but a different company," he said.

Leather said he came out of the Battle of the Bulge unscathed, but on March 24, 1945, the 17th returned to combat during Operation Varsity, an assault across the Rhine River into Germany. The 17th spearheaded the attack with the British 6th Airborne Division.

Leather, who wore his old uniform jacket and medals during the Veterans Day ceremony, said he was wounded by shrapnel on the first day of the battle. He attributed his survival to a large tree that took the brunt of the blast.

"If it wasn't for that tree, I wouldn't be here today," Leather said. "... I took off my boot and saw blood on my sock."

He said he went to an aid station to have his wound checked by medical personnel, who sent him to the rear.

Leather and Wishard were discharged from the Army in 1945.

Both said they thought Tuesday's ceremony, which was filled with prayers and speeches to honor veterans, was tremendous.

The keynote speaker for the ceremony, which was sponsored by the Morris Frock American Legion Post 42 Auxiliary, was retired Army Col. Richard W. Bower. He saluted the American flag before and after he addressed the crowd of about 175 onlookers.

After he thanked the veterans for their service, Bower questioned whether America's youths fully understand the meaning of Veterans Day.

"What are we teaching our youth?" Bower said. "Where is the parade ... We in this country owe a debt of gratitude to those (veterans) who sacrificed their lives so we could live free."

In addition to the speeches, patriotic music was piped over a loudspeaker and local veterans groups laid wreaths at the war memorial in front of the Washington County Courthouse.

The ceremony concluded when an American Legion honor guard fired a three-volley salute and taps was played by students from North Hagerstown High School.

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