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Bill was one of those soldiers

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was published previously in The News. Find more of Doug Pugh’s columns in his book, “Vignettes,” available for sale at The News, 130 Park Place, Alpena, Michigan, 49707.

Bill is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery. He’s in Block 5 in the alley between Lots 4 and 9. His wife and other family members are close by, some in the alley, others not.

Bill Prieur was my mother’s sister’s son — my first cousin — but there were a lot of years between Bill and me. He was already in the Army when I was born. In 1944, Bill’s battalion joined Gen. Patton’s Third Army in its push across Europe. He was a staff sargent — a platoon commander in Company A, 778th Tank Battalion, 11th Armored Division. Bill got right into the thick of it over there.

His battalion moved across France, fought in the battle of Metz. They crossed into Germany with the 95th Infantry Division, moved through town after town, crossed the Rhine River with the 26th Infantry Division, then continued deep into Germany, past Frankfort, before turning into Austria then Czechoslovakia. The 778th Tank Battalion engaged the enemy for 176 consecutive days — I understand that to be the second-longest consecutive engagement of allied forces in the European theater.

If you visit Bill’s grave, you’ll find it marked by a modest, flat stone wearing a brass plate of the type commonly seen on servicemen’s graves. That plate has his name, rank, date of birth, and date of death — the usual stuff — nothing fancy. But there’s other information there that’s not usual — a notation that he received the Purple Heart with two Oak Leaf Clusters. That means Bill was wounded three times. For his first wound, they gave him the Purple Heart, for each additional wound, an oak leaf cluster.

When victory over the Nazis was secured, Gen. George Patton addressed the men of the Third Army. His address concluded with these words:

“During the course of this war, I have received promotions and decorations far and above my individual merit. You won them. I as your representative wear them. The one honor which is mine and mine alone is that of having commanded such an incomparable group of Americans, the record of whose fortitude, audacity, and valor will endure as long as history lasts.”

Bill was one of those soldiers who earned the promotions and decorations Gen. Patton so proudly wore; together, they helped save our world from the delusions of an evil maniac.

After the war, Bill came home and built a successful business. He raised three daughters and lived to see their mother and two of those daughters die. In those years, I saw him occasionally. After he retired and moved back to Alpena, I saw him more.

Even so, I never learned the details of Bill’s wartime service — how he was wounded all those times. I only know he carried shrapnel too close to his spine to be safely removed and that he sustained his wounds during the Third Army’s advance across Germany.

I know no more than that and the reason I don’t is because I never asked.

It’s not that Bill’s service needs validation or elaboration — his valor is established, speaks for itself, needs no help from me or anyone else. But my memory of him is incomplete and unsettled, for it lacks a moment his valor earned — my honoring what he did. There is no image of his sharing or my caring preserved in my memories of him.

Our lives are filled with fleeting moments, some of satisfaction, others of disappointment — occasionally we celebrate an accomplishment. If we’re lucky there are moments of sensitivity and understanding.

I wish I would have asked Bill. I wish I would have afforded him an opportunity to share. I wish I would have gained a better understanding of what he did.

But most of all, I wish I would have told Bill thanks.

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs weekly on Saturdays. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.

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