The AARP Studios’ The Battle I’ll Never Forget features three critical battles in American history brought back to life by the soldiers who survived them. Read nine other veterans’ accounts of bravery.
World War II — Battle of the Bulge
IN LATE 1944 , Hitler played his last hand, launching a winter counteroffensive — against the Allies in the Ardennes — that became known as the Battle of the Bulge, where Private Lloyd Emerson, a tanker with the 11th Armored Division, saw his first action.
I HAD JUST TURNED 20. It was January, and it was cold. Our unit had already had a tank knocked out by a German 88 gun. Now we were in a new M4 Sherman with heavier armor, leading a tank column east from the Bastogne area toward Germany. The commander, Bill Zalsman, was 6 foot 4, too big to be a tank commander, but he was good at it. The order of the day for our main gun was high-explosive rounds, not armor piercing. We hadn't seen a German tank in a long time.
I was in the turret; I was the loader of the gun and the guarder of the radio. We came around a curve, and from a couple of hundred yards downhill, an 88 at a barricade hit us square on. That round should have penetrated the tank and killed us, but the new armor on the tank's front slope deflected it.
We were so excited, we started shouting. The tank stopped. Zalsman moved the turret toward where the firing had come from. Moving a tank turret is an agonizing thing; it seemed to take forever. He called for a high-explosive round, which I loaded, and he told the gunner to stop and fire. I watched through my periscope as our shot struck the 88 gun and upended it.
The adrenaline was running. We were yelling as if we had won the big game — and because we weren't dead. We approached carefully, but it was clear we'd be getting no more fire from there. Zalsman had done a great job. That was a remarkable shot.
After the war, Emerson worked for federal agencies and the United Nations, from which he retired in 1982. Now 92, he lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
World War II — Battle of Surigao Strait
World War II - Rhineland Campaign, Vosges Mountains
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was formed in 1943, mostly of nisei—second-generation Japanese Americans. Its most intense battle may have been in France’s Vosges Mountains, near the German border, in October 1944. Against overwhelming odds, 3,000 men of the “Go for Broke” unit rescued 211 members of a U.S. battalion trapped behind enemy lines, at a cost of 54 killed and 293 wounded. For its size and length of service, the 442nd was the most highly decorated Army unit in the history of American warfare: A force of about 10,000 was awarded more than 4,000 Purple Hearts, seven Presidential Unit citations and 21 Medals of Honor. Private Lawson Sakai, 20, was a squad leader with the 442nd in Europe.
MOST OF US volunteered for the fighting. We weren’t drafted. None of us thought we’d ever come home alive. Whatever the mission was, we were to continue and defeat the enemy. It was “Charge ahead!” Our motto came from gambling—go for broke. Keep going until you win or lose it all.
I was scared all the time. We were wet on the outside from the rain, and wet on the inside from the cold sweat. I never knew when I was going to step on a land mine or catch a bullet or get hit by shrapnel.
In the middle of October, we were on a road toward Bruyères when we were suddenly bombarded by the Germans in the Vosges Mountains, in thick forest. The Germans were using 88 mm antiaircraft guns as artillery, shooting them directly at us. The rounds shattered the trees, and large chunks of trees and branches fell on us.
The Germans were heavily fortified. We were going up; they were firing down. A few days into that battle, on October 28 or so, the rain stopped and fog came in. We couldn’t see more than 10 or 15 feet away. Since we couldn’t use hand signals, we had to holler at one another. We’d look for the Germans by the shape of their helmets.
On that day, there was really severe shrapnel, and I finally got taken out. I was lying down, and a big, jagged piece of metal came down in the middle of my back, went through it and around to my ribs. I thought I was dead. I told the medic, “Just let me die.” He gave me a big dose of morphine, and I don’t remember anything else till I was on a train headed out of the war zone, for treatment.
We got many awards and citations—but still, all those casualties. I’m not sure it was worth it. The mission was accomplished, but at a huge cost.
After the war, Sakai attended what was then George Pepperdine College, in Los Angeles, and owned and operated a travel agency. Today, at 92, he lives in Morgan Hill, California, south of San Jose. He is president of the Friends and Family of Nisei Veterans.
World War II — Okinawa
THE LAST MAJOR battle of World War II, the invasion of Okinawa represented a final obstacle before Allied forces could strike mainland Japan. More than 500,000 U.S. troops took part in the battle, which began on April 1, 1945; 14,000 Allied troops died. Estimates of Japanese dead range from 77,000 to 110,000. Some 140,000 native Okinawans were also killed. Navy Pharmacist's Mate Charles Young, 20, was attached to a Marine unit.
AS I WATCHED OUR battleships pound the coast and our planes drop wave after wave of bombs, I wondered how anyone on the island could survive. At sunset, the aircraft returned to their ships and our big guns quit. A tense stillness gripped our quarters belowdecks. Guys were quietly packing their gear, oiling their rifles, checking ammunition. A few wrote letters — for some, the final message home.
On April 1, we finally went ashore. As we made our way up the beach, all the enemy positions had been stripped of their weapons. Where are the Japanese? we wondered. Several soldiers joked that we had invaded the wrong island.
For weeks we followed abandoned campsites, pursuing an enemy that always seemed "just up ahead." We finally ran up against a sizable Japanese force dug in at Yae-Take, a mountain stronghold on the northern tip of the island. We had just moved out onto a bare rock 100 yards from the crest when mortar shells and hand grenades began exploding everywhere.
We encountered the heaviest fighting in the southern part of the island, and it lasted for weeks. That's when the real weight of combat hit me. It wasn't even the fear of getting killed but the sight of the dead all around us, both American and Japanese. With the Japanese dead, we could put some mud or dirt over them so the bodies were covered. But we were under strict orders not to touch American corpses until the graves registration men came by later to gather the Americans' dog tags and see exactly where they were killed. That took days sometimes. The stench was just awful.
During our last skirmish, I worked my way up a slope to the top of a cave, which was still hot because we had sent flamethrowers in to burn the Japanese troops out. No one fired on me — every single one of them was dead. Even the soldiers on stretchers in another cave used as a hospital had been euthanized. At an opening in the center of the plateau, I followed a stone staircase to the enemy command cave, which overlooked the entire bay. There on the floor of fine white sand was the Japanese general, beheaded by an aide, who had then killed himself in a ritual suicide.
You expect to see such things in war, but I was young and this was my first battle, and nothing can fully prepare you for how horrific and overwhelming it is.
Young later graduated from Columbia U. and become a teacher and writer; his most recent book is Letters from the Attic (2013). Now 90, he lives in Madison, Connecticut.
Korean War — Battle of Chosin Reservoir
IN NOVEMBER 1950, the Chinese 9th Army launched attacks on the U.S. X Corps in the Chosin Reservoir. Over 17 days, U.S. forces succeeded in breaking the encirclement and retreating to South Korea. In the early afternoon of December 4, Lieutenant Tom Hudner, 26, was part of a six-aircraft flight supporting the Marines from the air; he served as wingman to Ensign Jesse Brown, the first African American Navy pilot. When Brown's Corsair fighter-bomber was hit by small-arms fire and he was forced to crash-land on the slope of a mountain behind enemy lines, Hudner had to make a decision.
I COULD SEE smoke coming from the nose of Jesse's airplane. I figured the fire would consume the airplane, and announced I was going in after him. There was absolute silence on the radio. I knew I could be punished. It's bad enough to lose one pilot, let alone two. But Jesse was a friend, not just mine but everybody's in the squadron. So I decided to crash-land near his airplane. I know he would have done the same thing for me.
My thinking was, It's just a matter of pulling him out of the cockpit, getting him away from the plane and waiting for the rescue helicopter. It was bitter cold when I got out of my plane. And it was late afternoon, so it was becoming colder. I had sprained my back in the crash, but it didn't slow me. I knew there was a possibility of Chinese troops arriving and that things could go to hell at any time.
When I got to the plane, Jesse was almost frozen. His lips were blue, and he was shivering. The fuselage had crushed his leg and pinned his knee to his instrument panel. I grabbed him by the jacket and tried pulling him out, but he was trapped. And yet he was so calm. "Just tell Daisy how much I love her," he told me, closing his eyes.
I radioed up to the helicopter to go get an ax. By the time it reached us, the sun was setting. I grabbed the ax and started swinging at the fuselage, but it wouldn't budge. I couldn't free him, and the helicopter pilot didn't have instruments to fly at night. I promised Jesse we'd be back, but his head was slumped forward, and he'd stopped breathing. Then, once we were in the air, we saw Chinese soldiers climbing the slope of the mountain.
Hudner received the Medal of Honor for his efforts to save Jesse Brown. He retired from the Navy in 1973; now 91, he resides in Concord, Massachusetts. Brown's remains were never recovered.
Korean War — Pork Chop Hill
In the waning days of the Korean War, U.S. and U.N. forces fought a series of vicious battles against predominantly Chinese troops on a small hill that sat near a route leading to Seoul, the South Korean capital. Neither side could claim victory, and less than a month after one battle, in July 1953, the Korean War Armistice Agreement was signed. Bill Miller, then a private, saw his first combat on Pork Chop Hill with the Army’s 7th Infantry, after he had arrived in Korea at age 19.
BEFORE I WALKED UP that hill, I just prayed: God, don’t let me die a coward. God said to me, You will not die here, which meant I could do my job. We were up there 30 days—never had a bath, under fire day and night on that slippery clay ground. We knew we had to hold Pork Chop Hill, and we weren’t giving up. I happened to save a young American soldier’s life. He was aiming at a Chinese soldier and the clip from his M1 rifle popped out. He had no more ammo. With my help, the Chinese soldier expired right there on Pork Chop Hill.
About three days later, we were finally off duty behind the lines. The South Koreans had set up a tent selling beer and sweet rice wine to the soldiers. That soldier I’d saved was in there, about half-drunk. He pointed at me and said, “This is a nigger. I could slap his face and he couldn’t do anything about it.” I didn’t say anything, just went back to my tent. Then I went to his. He was asleep in his sleeping bag. I told him to get up. He wouldn’t. So I kicked his ass in his sleeping bag.
But that was rare. Mostly we loved each other. We cared about each other. It didn’t make a difference where you came from.
I went into the Army to fight communism and to be the best soldier I could be. I got up to the top of the hill.
Miller, 83, later served two tours in Vietnam as a weapons and explosives specialist. He retired from the Army in 1979 as a master sergeant. He lives in Las Vegas.
Vietnam — Hamburger Hill
THE BLOODY 10-DAY assault in May 1969 on a North Vietnamese position called Hill 937 quickly became known as the Battle of Hamburger Hill because of the high fatality rate and sheer carnage, which troops compared to a meat grinder. Though American infantry troops succeeded in capturing the heavily fortified hill, the position was of little strategic value and was abandoned soon after the battle. Air Force nurse Linda Schwartz, 24, attended the wounded as they arrived at Tachikawa Air Base, west of Tokyo, during the battle.
ONE NIGHT WE were urgently called to our hospital because C-141 medevac flights were streaming in with overflow wounded that other units could not take in. Over the next several days, we treated scores of soldiers and Marines; by the end of the battle, more than 500 had been killed or seriously injured. There were so many casualties that the mess hall was turned into a triage area. When I looked down the hallway, it was like something out of a movie. At first I could just make out the silhouettes of soldiers, almost all of them barely able to hold themselves upright, slowly moving along with their arms strung across the shoulders of other men. Some of them should have been on litters, but there weren't enough. As they got closer, I could see that the men were covered from head to toe with mud and bloody field dressings. Two in particular I can see in my mind's eye to this day. Young kids — very young — with shrapnel wounds. One of the two was silent; the other guy spoke for them both. I asked them to wait while I finished preparing their beds, but they just collapsed together on one unmade bed, too exhausted to keep standing.
"Take care of my buddy, take care of my buddy," said the one who could still talk.
I turned to the soldier who hadn't said a word and noticed he had a chest tube in place with no seal to prevent his lung from collapsing. It was a nightmare scenario, because we didn't have the right equipment or respirators to help him, and he was already going in and out of consciousness. Another nurse came over, and our faces must have given us away.
"Is he going to make it?" the talking soldier asked.
I still remember his tired eyes. Now, when he thought he'd gotten his buddy to safety, he suddenly realized how serious things were.
"Definitely!" the other nurse and I replied, but in truth we were praying to God that he would make it, and I think his buddy knew that.
That's when I saw true bravery. Tenderly, the soldier held his buddy's hand and whispered to him that they had made it, that we would take care of him and that everything would be OK. It was that night that I realized I would never return to being a civilian nurse again, that this was where I wanted to be.
Schwartz, 71, retired as a major in 1980 and is now the assistant secretary of veterans affairs in the VA's Office of Policy and Planning.
Persian Gulf War — Air War: Day 4
ON THE FOURTH night of the air campaign over Iraq during the Persian Gulf War, Air Force Colonel David Eberly's F-15E fighter jet was shot down. Eberly, 43, and Major Tom Griffith, his weapon systems officer, parachuted into the desert near the town of al-Qaim in northern Iraq.
THE SECOND NIGHT, we heard the F-15Es overhead — coming back in to hit more targets. We were told the rescue forces were searching for us. On the third night, after no further contact, we decided to walk toward the Syrian border. As we approached a small building in which a candle burned, however, automatic-weapons fire erupted all around us. I felt shots passing my ears; I saw the sand being kicked up at my feet. They screamed in Arabic, and we fell to our knees. They dragged us by the backs of our collars to the shed.
We were moved to a nearby compound, and the next morning, after interrogations, they decided to take us to Baghdad. They put us in the backseat of a white Toyota station wagon and headed for a village about a half-mile away. The soldiers had rallied the locals to see their war trophies. The crowds closed in on the car and started rocking it. A grapefruit-size rock came through the back window where I was sitting, and the guards panicked. Grif and I yelled, "Go, go!" and the driver bumped back to the compound.
Eventually, we were moved to a maximum security military prison in Baghdad. During the interrogations, we were blindfolded and shackled. On three occasions, a guard cocked a pistol and placed it against my head, but after the first mock execution, it was clear the gun was not loaded. In one interrogation, they got fed up. They told me, "If you don't cooperate, we're going to take you downtown and let some of the people whose wives and children you've killed deal with you." The threat of being turned over to people in the streets was the most frightening thing. I kept going through the scenarios of being hanged or being shot, and I prayed for God's strength if I were stoned to death. But I never gave up hope we'd be released: If we can just stay alive, someday we'll be home. One morning, the cell door opened. An Iraqi officer entered and said, "I'm here to take you home."
After 43 days in captivity, Eberly, now 68, was freed on March 5, 1991; he was the senior-ranking POW among the 45 Persian Gulf War Allied prisoners of war. He lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Persian Gulf War — Scud Missile Attack
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade and annex neighboring Kuwait in August 1990 was greeted with international condemnation, and the U.S. led a coalition from 34 nations—the largest military alliance since World War II — to liberate the country. After a massive buildup of forces over several months, the shooting war itself was brief and brutal: a 42-day campaign that began with an aerial assault on January 17. The ground phase of the Persian Gulf War lasted only 100 hours. At age 49, Coast Guard Petty Officer Sandy Mitten was stationed near the port of Dammam in Saudi Arabia, where — known as “Grandma Gunner”— she helped crew the 22-foot Raider boats that defended the port when Iraqi Scud missiles came her way.
On the night of January 17, we were in our barracks when we heard the alarm go off. Someone started screaming, “Scud attack! Scud attack!” Scuds were the missiles that Hussein used to bomb our bases in Saudi Arabia and Israel. We all frantically put on our MOPP [mission-oriented protective posture] gear and huddled together in the passageway. A lot of people were quietly weeping, and one girl was just sobbing uncontrollably.
What scared us all the most was the possibility that the Scuds might have poison gas in them. During training we were shown these awful pictures of what gas did to people, pictures from when Hussein gassed the Kurds before the war. Hussein had threatened to use gas on us, and there was no reason to think he was bluffing. When the missiles came over, you could see them arc through the air like tracer fire. Debris from the Scuds that had been intercepted by Patriot missiles fell in our compound. It was terrifying. I have a strong sense of faith and obviously wanted to return home to my children and grandkids, so being gassed to death seemed like a pretty horrible way of going.
We lived with the fear of those missiles every day. In one night alone, we had at least six attacks. It’s been about 25 years now, and I still have these moments of panic if I see or hear a fireworks display. When you live in fear, night after night, that you might be killed, it makes you more aware of your surroundings.
Mitten, 74, returned home to New Berlin, Wisconsin, after the Persian Gulf War. She retired from the Coast Guard Reserve in 2001, after 27 years of service, and now resides in Jacksonville, Florida.
Iraq War II — Battle of Baghdad
THE BATTLE UNFOLDED in April 2003, less than a month after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of American ground firepower consisted of a pair of bold armored assaults on the city, dubbed thunder runs. Fewer than 1,000 American soldiers aboard Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles raced across heavily defended territory and seized the Iraqi capital, bringing the regime of Saddam Hussein to an unexpectedly swift end. Army Lieutenant Colonel Eric Schwartz, 41, led the 3rd Infantry Division's Task Force Rogue into Baghdad.
LATE ON APRIL 4, I was called to the Operations Center, 11 miles from the city. The commanding officer put his finger on a map. "I just need you to do a thunder run through Baghdad," he said. I thought to myself: Whoa.
We put together a raid force to penetrate the center of Baghdad, draw fire, destroy the defending force, kill everything, and get back and report. Our first 20-kilometer attack, on April 5, took two hours and 20 minutes. The enemy threw everything but the kitchen sink at us — we were moving down the center of the street, and people were firing from everywhere. Coming across Iraq, we had been attacked by ambulances, school buses, suicide bombers. We met a lot of those conditions again in Baghdad. It was the Wild Wild West. By 9:30 that morning, we had seized the airport. Every one of our vehicles had been hit, several were on fire, and one of my commanders had been killed.
In the next push, on April 7, we got to the city center, and for four days were eliminating resistance. Then what I call the golden hour happened. I remember standing on top of my tank. Everybody had come out of the apartments, workplaces, mosques. There must have been hundreds of thousands of people on the street. They could have turned on us in a minute. But they all just looked at us and asked, "What do you want us to do?"
Schwartz, 54, later served as chief of the U.S. Pacific Command training program and of the garrison at Fort Knox. He is now the director of business development at an energy company.