November 5, 2004 - Parade to honor those who served - World War II vet proud to wear his uniform Sunday.
GALESBURG - This year's Galesburg Veterans Day parade will step off on Sumner Street at 2 p.m. Sunday. Organizers remain confident plenty of participants will show up, but by Thursday, only about 20 units were committed to the parade. Larry Anderson has done the bulk of planning for the fourth annual parade. Asked how things are shaping up, he said, "kind of slow, but I think they'll be there." The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and AMVETS will be, along with the Galesburg police and fire departments, the Boy Scouts and a peace coalition group. After a small number of participants and spectators last year, blamed on bad weather, the question is whether interest is waning, just three years after 9/11.
Floyd Ragsdale of East Galesburg is an example of why the public's short interest span, if that is the case, would be sad. Ragsdale, who is 79, was drafted by the Army in 1943, two weeks after his 18th birthday. He dropped out of high school to fight for his country. "Like every other kid, I was determined to do my part," he said. "I remember sitting in a fox hole (months later) and thinking 'If I had stayed in high school, I wouldn't have been in this predicament.'"
A member of the 106th Infantry Division, Ragsdale fought in one of the final great battles of the war in Europe, the Battle of the Bulge. He was sent overseas in October 1944. After training in England, his division crossed the English Channel in November. Ragsdale was picked as one of the soldiers invited to attend a Thanksgiving dinner the royal family was having in Buckingham Palace. "I was looking forward to that, but the Army had different ideas," Ragsdale said.
The GIs landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. A truck convoy took them to the German/Belgium border. Ragsdale said when the doors of the landing crafts opened on the beach, "we were thinking of those guys who landed there in June," D-Day.
He narrowly missed being in D-Day himself. He was still in the United States, on a shipping list of 1,400 men, classified as an extra. From that list, "there were seven of us and they took every one of them but me," he said. The Army couldn't ship 18-year-olds overseas until they had a year in the military. However, "They would have taken me if they had wanted me because they had ways of getting around the rules," he said.
This year's Veterans Day is particularly significant. Dec. 16 is the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. Ragsdale remembers. The battle continued until Jan. 28, 1945. "They (the Germans) started with an artillery barrage that lasted for seven hours," he said. "I read later it was the greatest concentration of artillery fire in the entire war."
After that, the foot soldiers would arrive.
"This was our first engagement," Ragsdale said. "We had no battle experience, so we didn't realize the magnitude of this affair. We were outnumbered 10 to 1 in a lot of cases." There were three regiments to a division. Ragsdale's 424th Regiment and the 423rd Regiment were pushed back by the Germans. "Out of 15,000 men, we lost about 9,000 or 10,000 in two days time," he said. Many were prisoners of war, others were killed or wounded.
He said the tide turned when the 82nd Airborne Division and an armored division were brought in. The Allies were pushed back 60 miles. "Then we had to take it back a village at a time," he said. "When you're in the infantry, you do the Army's dirty work." The infantry suffered 70 percent of all the casualties.
Not only did the soldiers face enemy fire, temperatures dropped as low as 20 degrees below zero. "Your second enemy was the weather," Ragsdale said.
Ragsdale said Hitler planned the battle around the theory that bad weather would keep planes grounded for four weeks. Mother Nature took the Allies' side and in two weeks, B-17 bombers and U.S. fighter planes filled the skies. "You could see B-17 bombers from one end of the horizon to the other," he said. Fighter planes strafed German tanks and soldiers. By March and April, the Germans were surrendering, desperately looking for the Americans and British armies, not wanting to surrender to the Soviets.
Ragsdale returned home, a civilian again, in April 1946.
Asked what it means to him, Ragsdale sighed, then said, "Well, I guess it means a lot to me. I don't have the words to express what it means." He remembers things Hitler did before the United States entered the war, and Neville Chamberlain giving in and proclaiming "peace in our time." "If somebody had just stood up to him, all of this wouldn't have happened. I'm proud to have had a part in bringing it to an end," he said.
One last thing brings a smile to Ragsdale's lips. Before the 2001 Veterans Day parade, he tried on his World War II uniform and discovered it still fit. "It was about an hour before parade time," he said. He put on the uniform, buttoned it and marched in the parade. He has worn it in every Veterans Day parade since, and will once again Sunday. (By JOHN R. PULLIAM, The Register-Mail, Galesburg, Illinois)
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James D. West