By Von Mitchell
Special to the DCI
While the number of what Tom Brokaw calls "The Greatest Generation" dwindles everyday, I am privileged to know one who remains. He lives right up the street. His name is Phil Ellsworth and he's one of my heroes.
Mine has been the experience of watching "Saving Private Ryan" or "Flags of Our Fathers" and saying, "Those are life-changing films. Everyone should see them." His was the experience of fighting in the Second Great War and enduring its atrocities. But for him and those like him, we might all be singing a different anthem.
The Early Days
Phil Ellsworth was 16 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He says, "All the boys knew that unless rejected for physical reasons, we would enter the armed services as soon as we were old enough. Our athletic fields became obstacle courses and our gym classes became real physical fitness classes."
After joining the Army Specialized Training Reserve Program, Phil soon found himself in the 100th Infantry Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. It was the spring of 1944, a few months before D-Day. Phil was 18 years old. On Nov. 9, 1944 — Phil's 19th birthday — he ventured into combat for the first time in the Vosges Mountains of northeast France. He still remembers standing in the woods in the rain with the chaplain leading his comrades in a few hymns just prior to a German artillery attack. He would remain on the front lines until war's end.
"In World War II in the American Army in Europe," says Phil, "combat infantry units stayed on line continuously. Individual soldiers stayed there until killed, captured, wounded, or until the war ended. From the minute a division went into combat the infantrymen were almost never out of the reach of enemy mortars and artillery. I thought I would probably never hear the sound of thunder again without thinking it was artillery."
Brother in Arms
Around New Year's Day in 1945, during what proved to be one of the coldest winters on record, Phil shared a foxhole with Robert Burlison, a Browning automatic rifleman a few year's Phil's senior. Phil had become so weak from what he describes as "something like dysentery" that he couldn't line up for food. When he showed signs of internal bleeding, Burlison took Phil to the medics, who sent him to a field hospital where he stayed for approximately two weeks. During that time, German tanks overran Phil's company. Most of Phil's platoon (around 40 men) were killed, wounded, or captured. His friend, Robert Burlison, was killed.
"There are a very few for whom fear just doesn't seem to exist," says Phil, "or at least it never shows outwardly. When they act, their bravery seems so much a normal part of them that it goes unrecorded. This was Robert Burlison. I believe I owe my life to him."
Phil remembers his friend as "the bravest soldier I knew, the bravest person I have ever known." He wrote the following poem in honor of his fallen comrade:
If he knew fear, I did not see.
He was a brother's arm to me,
And when he fell, fell part of me.
By war's end, Phil Ellsworth was the only one of his original squad remaining.
Shadows of Heilbronn
Upon his return to the battle lines, Phil found his platoon ripe with replacements. In a matter of weeks, he became a squad leader in charge of men who were "facing danger surrounded by people they didn't know."
In April 1945, Phil's company trucked after the retreating Germans to the factory and railroad town of Heilbronn, on the Neckar River. His platoon received instructions to lead a river crossing in small paddleboats. The reports of the day detail heavy shelling and gunfire, but Phil says he doesn't remember any of that. "I think at times I was in a mental state that thought only of getting to the next cover," he says.
Once across the river, the men took up positions on the second floor of a nearby factory building. Soon they heard German voices on the floor below them and saw a "potato masher" hand grenade tumble up the stairs into their midst. Fortunately, the grenade didn't explode and Phil and his comrades eventually made their way back to their company.
The next day Phil traversed alone to company headquarters. He came to the corner of a building in Heilbronn just as a German soldier rounded it from the other direction. Both startled and armed, they warily gave safe passage to one another. Phil calls this The Meeting:
Once, in a contested place,
I met a soldier face to face.
We stopped and turned and walked away,
Both to live another day.
I often wonder who he was
And where he is and whom he loves,
And if he ever sees, like me,
A soldier in his memory,
Or if before the end he fell,
Leaving only me to tell
Of our meeting, face to face,
Once, in a contested place.
In the days that followed, Phil and his squad received orders to advance on a hill and clear it of Germans. They reached the top without resistance and found it unoccupied. Returning to the bottom of the hill, they heard voices from some kind of dugout. Phil and his men approached the entrance and called, "Kommen sie aus-handen hoch," which means, "Come out — hands high!" From the opening emerged a group of German men and officers. The Americans had passed them on the way up!
"If it had happened a few days earlier," says Phil, "they would have ambushed us. Fortunately, they had decided their war was over and they were ready to surrender."
The war wound down after Heilbronn, and even though much of what happened in those days-the villages, skirmishes, marches, artillery, and mortars-has blurred into a dream for Phil Ellsworth, some memories, like the river crossing and "the meeting" remain as vivid as ever.
I've read "Unbroken" and marveled at the courage of American soldiers, especially Louis Zamperini. You can't read about his days afloat on the Pacific or his perseverance as a prisoner of war in the face of cruelty without being moved. "Unbroken" is an incredible story about sacrifice and the power of forgiveness. It's one of those books that should be required reading for every American.
But I know Phil Ellsworth, and he's better than any book. I stand amazed at how narrowly he escaped death on numerous occasions to prevail and tell his story-a story I find just as triumphant as "Unbroken." This remarkable man is a living, breathing warrior poet. The absolute absence of bitterness in his makeup is an inspiration to me. Here is a man who went to war and experienced profound loss, yet bears no grudges.
"Most of my contact was with the ordinary German soldiers," says Phil. "I didn't feel any real personal animosity toward them. I almost felt like they were going through the same thing I was. They had to survive the winter outdoors just like we did. Now, I wasn't dealing with SS officers. The ones that I shot at, I knew they were probably just like I was. They were there because somebody said they had to be there."
In recent years, Phil Ellsworth has shared his WWII experiences with select American history classes right here in Delta County. He tells young people, "It isn't that we want to be remembered for ourselves, it's that we want what we did and why we did it to be remembered; and we want those remembered who, like Robert Burlison, had dreams for the future like you do, but who were called to serve and didn't come home to live out those dreams."
So, for my incredibly smart neighbor who did come home to live out his dreams — he worked as a mineral exploration geologist for 37 years and was married for 55 years to his beloved wife, Margaret, with whom he raised three wonderful kids: Ruth, Carolyn, and Philip. I will remember. For Louis Zamperini and Robert Burlison and that brave class of history makers who fought through Depression and War, I will remember. I will remember what they did and why they did it. For my grandfather, Cecil James Watson, who served in the U.S. Navy during WWII, I will remember. For all of our servicemen and women who stand the wall everyday to protect our way of life, I will remember.
Yes, sir. I will remember.blog comments powered by Disqus