Editor’s note: This article was written by Kali Choquette of Gloucester, Va., in honor of her grandfather.
In the winter of 1942 a man by the name of Eugene Fairchild left his home in Mount Vernon for boot camp in Camp Van Dorn, down in Mississippi. In boot camp, he became part of the 395th Infantry. This man went from being an ordinary man to a soldier in the line of fire. Before he made it back home, he would participate in one of the biggest battles of World War II.
While in boot camp, he attended specialized training as an anti-tank gunner in preparation for the war. Nine months later he was shipped off with many other young soldiers from all over the United States to fight in Europe. The train ride from Camp Massey, Texas, to the seaport in Brockton, Mass., was long and enduring, passing through many cities. The most memorable part of the train ride was when it passed through Mansfield, barely half an hour from his home in Mount Vernon.
In Brockton, Cpl. Fairchild boarded the United Fruit, a freight ship which they called “Banana Boat,” for the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean. On the way they encountered submarines; however, they managed to avoid their attacks by dodging them with frequent course changes. Once they were in Plymouth, England, the 99th Infantry Division made its way through the English Channel, which was full of mines, from England to France, and then over to Belgium.
Life as a soldier was difficult at best. Surviving as a soldier outside the line of fire was all about finding that one little thing that might not mean anything to the next guy, but something that got a single soldier through that day. For Fairchild, one of those days was when he was helping a fellow soldier carry a box. He noticed on the box was printed the company’s name, “Shellmar.” Shellmar was a company that his brother, George, worked for in Ohio. For a moment he was able to escape from the harsh reality of war and remember time spent with his brother back home.
As a soldier, one could never just go grab a bite to eat; since they were on the move all the time, they had to take their food with them. These meals in a box were called D-rations. The C-rations consisted of the notorious Spam in a can and other dried foods. The D-rations consisted of four ounces of chocolate candy bars, high energy for soldiers on the move. November 1944 found Fairchild celebrating Thanksgiving in the Ardenne Forest, Belgium, eating hash out of a can.
On Dec. 16, 1944, Fairchild was a player in one of the biggest and bloodiest battles in World War II — The Battle of the Bulge. During this battle, the American strength in the Höfen-Monschau sector consisted of one rifle battalion and a reconnaissance squadron: The 3rd Battalion, 395th Infantry, under Lt. Col. McClernand Butler, in Höfen, and the 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, outposting Monschau and deployed to the north along the railroad track between Mützenich and Konzen station. The infantry at Höfen lay in a foxhole line along a thousand-yard front on the eastern side of the village, backed up by dug-out support positions on which the battalion had labored for some six weeks. Fairchild had position in a fox hole.
Two nights prior to the German offensive, Company A of the 612th Tank Destroyer Battalion towed its 3-inch guns into the Höfen sector for the purpose of getting good firing positions against the village of Rohren, northeast of Höfen, which lay in the path of the 2nd Infantry Division attack. The appearance of the guns, sited well forward and swathed in sheets for protective coloration in the falling snow, gave a lift to the infantry, who as yet had to fight its first battle. One of the many days in battle, he and a friend switched their duties. During that same day there was an explosion that killed the man in what was supposed to be Fairchild’s position. The man was one of his hometown friends. Later, as the Germans started to break through the American front line, a chaplain read them their last rights and suggested they shouldn’t fight if they wanted to live.
The war ended in May 1945. Fairchild became a Military Police, even though the war was over. He was an M.P. from May to January 1946. He returned home on the aircraft carrier Champlain, which the soldiers called The Magic Carpet ride. They came in the New York harbor. As the soldiers arrived at port, the boats in the harbor were honking their horns and saluting them. It made the soldiers feel good that someone was grateful for what they did. They were especially delighted when seeing the Statue of Liberty, because they knew they were finally safe at home.
This soldier isn’t just any man; he is my grandfather. He is 87 years old and still lives in Ohio. He volunteered to fight, and left the comfort of his own town and risked his life to save millions of Jews. He even saw the dead bodies of the Jews in concentration camps, the ovens and the gas chambers. Some of his memories are horrible to remember even to this day, but others he may remember all his life.
When Roosevelt died, Fairchild remembers being transported in a tank out of the area; he remembers the local women wearing wooden shoes, and their great pies. He remembers staying in this old farmhouse, waiting. Another time when the Germans were breaking through the American line a lieutenant ran up to them and told the soldiers if they valued their lives they best get out of there. Trying to listen to his advice, the soldiers decided to go back to their post, only to find their post an empty field because the other members at their camp had left already.
My grandpa is a very modest man. He was once invited to a commemoration of World War II in Washington, D.C., for what he and countless other soldiers did, but he felt it was not right to go. When he went to war, he knew he was just doing the right thing, he was just doing what he had to do.
From the time he left home in the summer of ’42 until the time he returned in the winter of ’46, not only had my grandfather changed, but the world did, too. No longer was he the young hometown guy from Ohio; he became a man who went to boot camp, and then a soldier who went to fight in the worst battle of the war. He did all that, but all he wanted to do was return to his little old town in Mount Vernon. But he and millions like him risked their lives to make the world a better place, where the Jews no longer had to hide in fear of whether they were going to live or die, and where no longer were there families of Jewish people against each other in the concentration camps.
This is how my grandfather became part of “The Greatest Generation.”