That was one day in the World War II service of Hugh Lee Young. The Carroll County man survived that day, but another spectacular adventure effectively ended his fighting career. That was the day he was shot down over Italy, bailed out of a burning plane, and was captured on the ground by Axis forces. Young served out the rest of the war as the “guest” of Nazi guards at Stalag Luft 17B, who, you can be sure, lived up to their reputation.
Today is Veterans Day, a date which originally marked the end of World War I – the “war to end all wars” – which ended on Nov. 11, 1918. Originally known as “Armistice Day,” the anniversary was renamed when it became clear there would be more wars, and that more young people would risk life and limb for their country.
Wilson Freeman is another Carroll County veteran who parachuted into danger – this time as a paratrooper who arrived in France just in time for the December 1944 Battle of the Bulge.
When Freeman was growing up, he knew that his father had served in World War I, but the older man never talked about his service. The few times he did was when he was around other veterans of the Great War.
Like his father, Freeman only reluctantly talks about his war, but is persuaded to do so when he is in the company of other veterans, like Young. Sitting across from one another during a recent visit, the two men – 86 and 89 respectively – become youthful again as they talk about experiences which, although they happened decades ago, would be strikingly familiar to anyone who returned from Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.
By listening to his father talk with his veteran friends, Freeman learned that the best way to survive a war is to join “the best group you could be with.” At the beginning of World War II, that meant the elite 101st Airborne, a paratrooper unit he joined when it dropped its age limit to 19.
After training, Freeman was shipped off to Europe. While at sea, his transport ship was sliced open during a collision with a French aircraft carrier. More than 70 aboard the transport were killed, including one serviceman to whom Freeman had given his topcoat. When the man’s body was fished out of the water, the I.D. sewn inside the coat caused the War Department to send a telegram to Freeman’s family telling them he had been killed.
While his family was missing Freeman, he was missing that topcoat in the freezing weather outside Bastogne, where he and his unit were fighting off Hitler’s massive effort to turn back the Allied invasion. Meanwhile, Young was sitting in his POW camp barracks, listening to news of the invasion over a crystal radio set smuggled in by French prisoners, and playing mental games with his German captors.
Freeman and Young nowadays talk about their adventures in such a matter-of-fact way – but their stories are amazing.
Young was a gunner aboard a B-24 Liberator, a job so in demand that he kept flying after his required 25 missions were over. His plane once flew so low over the Adriatic that icy water splashed up into his ball turret; he strafed rail boxcars full of ammunition that exploded under the plane. After he was captured, he used cigarettes sent from home as currency, spent a lot of time in solitary confinement and worked on escape tunnels with tools made from tin cans. As Allied forces closed in on the camp, he was forced to march near enough to a concentration camp to smell burned and rotted flesh.
The POW camp was in Austria, not far from where Freeman eventually found himself. His recreational prowess with a .30-caliber machine gun got on his permanent record. While insisting he was no machine-gunner, he traveled the war zone as the reluctant leader of a machine-gun squad. He saw battle and death in France, smashed down the gate of one of the Dachau extermination camps, had his picture made at the Nazi high command outpost of Berchtesgaden, stood guard at American forces HQ in Frankfurt and shook hands with Eisenhower.
And that’s only a few of the stories each of these men can tell. Freeman mostly tells his stories to his adult children, with his proud wife, Tommie, listening in. Young tells his stories for school children, wearing the uniform jacket in which he was discharged and the medals he has earned.
Although each played a role in the largest event of the 20th Century, each man has their own perspective on how their experiences shaped their lives.
“The most important thing about my military service, it gave me the strength and fortitude to come back and get into college,” Freeman says.
Young is even more succinct:
“The main thing was just be glad to be alive.”