By Kathryn G. Menu
Richard Warren knew surprisingly little about the journey his late father took as a member of the United States Army’s 28th Infantry 109th Division through Europe at the tail end of World War II. John H. Warren Jr. did not speak of it much, but it was clear to his youngest son that the experience had altered him — both emotionally and physically — and that it was a story to be preserved, just like other stories from servicemen who Mr. Warren came to think of as “the quiet heroes.”
In late April, at the urging of a friend who joined him on the expedition — East Hampton attorney Bill Fleming — Mr. Warren, a Southampton resident, travelled to Europe to trace his father’s steps from a field next to the Hürtgen Forest, where his father was critically injured, to the shores of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France where he landed several weeks after D-Day to fight in the hedgerows at the age of 26.
Tracing his father’s steps backwards, Mr. Warren documented the trip through journaling, photography and video, relying on information gleaned from research and conversations with his late mother, Evelyn, and through a box of family letters and documents he inherited after his mother’s passing in 2013. His hope was to present a record to his siblings — John, Patricia, and Susan — and to his own children, Christopher and Sarah, so the story could be preserved for generations to come.
Jack, as he was known, landed on Omaha Beach on July 22, 1944 after several months of training in England. He immediately entered the hedgerow fighting, battling Germans north and west of Saint-Lô. Jack fought in a bloody and intense battle for that city, which was leveled during World War II. He also joined iconic parades under the Champs Elysees in Paris after its liberation on August 29. In September, the 28th Infantry was assigned to move through France and Luxembourg to the German border, where they began battling the Siegfried Line — a 390-mile expanse of concrete bunkers, tunnels and tank traps in the forests outside Aachen, Germany.
Jack entered the Hürtgen Forest on November 2, fighting with German forces for control of two towns — Vossenack and Schmidt. On November 3, facing enemy fire in a trench of woods, a German rifle grenade landed behind Jack, exploding shrapnel that broke his arm, shattered an elbow and left pieces lodged in both arms, legs, and back — one piece just a half-inch from his heart. He was left unconscious as the 28th was pushed back by the Germans. When he awoke, he wrapped himself in a jacket and staggered, unknowingly, towards a German campfire.
“They realized he was hurt and they pointed him in the other direction,” said Mr. Warren in an interview at his environmental planning business, Inter-Science Research Associates in Southampton. “This was late in the war, the Americans were pushing back, and this time the Germans surrendered. The Germans that were captured actually carried my father’s litter to the Red Cross tent.”
Jack was eventually transported to England to recover, writing letters home to his wife, Evelyn, with the aid of a nurse. He was moved to Halloran General Hospital in New York in January of 1945 and earned his medical discharge in September of the same year. Coming home to Evelyn in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania on a Friday, he began work at the Warren Knight Co. the following Monday.
“He could never really talk about the war,” said Mr. Warren. “I think he realized war is a tragedy, and that was not something he wanted to talk about.”
Mr. Warren wanted to understand more about his father’s experience, which led him on a flight to Brussels on April 21. Joined by Mr. Fleming, who was armed with a breadth of knowledge about World War II, the men drove through Belgium to Germany, staying in a small town at the bottom of a river valley, Simonskall, on the Kall River just miles from the Hürtgen Forest, and Wilde Sau, where the grenade injured his father more than 70 years earlier.
Walking on the cobblestone streets in Simonskall, Mr. Warren and Mr. Fleming discovered the 28th Infantry Division had travelled through the village during the fall of 1944. A plaque, which Mr. Warren captured on film with a photograph of his father, was erected outside a building built in 1661, honoring American and German soldiers who fought there.
“It was humbling to think that I was standing within an area his unit actually passed through during combat — this little steep-sided wooded valley through which flowed the Kall River,” he wrote.
With his father’s portrait tucked into his backpack, Mr. Warren and Mr. Fleming spent the next several days touring the region, looking for the place Jack was injured while spending time in the Hürtgen Forest and nearby Vossenack with a 27 year-old guide named Hendrik Buch, a history student from Aachen.
“He told us that for most people outside of this area, the bloody battles of the Hürtgen Forest are not well known — as everyone remembers the Battle of the Bulge nearby,” wrote Mr. Warren. “However, the battles of Hürtgen took the lives of thousands of Allied and German soldiers as fighting in the thick, dark, impenetrable woods was difficult in the fall of 1944.”
Mr. Warren eventually was able to find Wilde Sau, a field adjacent to dense pine forest, where Jack was injured.
“It was pretty emotional to know this is where my dad was 72 years ago,” he said. “It felt good to understand what he went through as best I can and to see the area that has healed.”
From Hürtgen, Mr. Warren headed west, to Normandy, and Saint-Lô, where the 28th fought after landing on Omaha Beach — traversing the broad seascape wearing the Liberation of Paris medal his father received after the war.
“I had a chance to sit on the beach and contemplate what it is to be 26 — my father’s age then and my son’s age now — and land on a beach with a pack, and a rifle and a helmet, and face this incredible battle,” he said. I think a lot of people need to see this. War is hard to comprehend — I needed to see it to understand its magnitude.”
The two men continued their trip through France and back to Belgium, and took in the history left in the wake of two world wars. The immense impact of war was something not lost on Mr. Warren.
“A trip like this causes one to admire and respect the efforts made by all soldiers who participate in conflicts throughout the world,” he wrote at the end of his trip. “Importantly, it gave me a greater sense of respect toward the efforts of many to bring peace to the world, a reverence to the unfathomable number of lives lost (many who were never found or identified) and the significance of having intelligent and humble leaders who are committed to finding world peace.”