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Veteran, 90, reflects on war, military life on Memorial Day

It took John Huffman about 50 years to pick up the book he bought as a soldier when he returned home from a 31-month tour of duty in Europe during World War II.

Huffman, a 90-year-old Army veteran from Dayton, bought “The 84th Infantry Division in the Battle of Germany,” but never opened it. It sat unread in a drawer near his bed for a half-century.

He still doesn't know what made him eventually pick it up, but he said he is moved whenever he reads it now. It chronicles everything his unit did while in Scotland, England, Belgium and Germany during the war.

“I've read every page of this book like I've read every page of the Bible,” Huffman said. “It reminds me every time how terrible that war was — it was just really, really terrible.”

The book, written by Lt. Theodore Draper, is yellowing with age and has some water damage on its beige cover. The book is a stark contrast to Huffman's vivid memories of his time in the Army, especially as he reflected on his military service just before the start of Memorial Day weekend.

A 17-year-old Huffman joined the Army after listening to a radio newscast of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, but had to wait until he graduated from high school to be accepted. He went directly to basic training with a field artillery unit at Camp Bowie in Texas when he graduated in 1943.

“When I got there, I was as soft as can be,” Huffman said. “But they got me ready, put me on a boat and sent me overseas.”

When he was 19, Huffman started his tour of duty in Europe, from 1943 until 1945, pushing and loading ammunition into a 57-mm anti-tank gun. It took about a dozen men to operate the gun, he said. One man loaded the gun and one man fired it, while others each carried one five-pound shell.

After traveling through England and France, Huffman said he ended up on the Siegfried Line, which was a series of German forts and munitions depots designed to keep Allied Forces at bay in the town of Geilenkirchen.

“The first day, we were told we had to take a German sniper out of a local church steeple, so we loaded up the gun,” Huffman said. “I was told, ‘You're a soldier, so you don't shoot at the man, you shoot at the uniform.' So I fired and took him out.”

After taking out the sniper, the unit went into the town to look for more German soldiers. He fired the anti-tank gun once more in Geilenkirchen, into a train station full of German soldiers.

Huffman said he will never forget seeing the hole his 57 mm shells made in the church steeple or the train station, or the devastation in Geilenkirchen, which he said was about the same size as Kittanning.

“It was the most gruesome thing I'd ever seen. Oh my God, there was absolutely nothing left of that building or anyone in it,” Huffman said. “Nobody can realize what that type of a situation is like unless you actually experience it.”

Huffman said his unit broke through the Siegfried Line on Christmas Eve in 1944 and moved toward Belgium.

Huffman almost got out of the war unscathed, but a shell backfired when he was firing at German soldiers across the Rhine River. It nearly took off the tip of his pointer finger on his left hand.

“They wanted to send me home, but I didn't want to go,” Huffman said. “I was told they'd probably be sending me home, but I knew I could heal up and stay with my company.”

Despite his sergeant's orders, Huffman said he downplayed his injury and got stitches and painkillers from the unit's medic.

“It hurt like hell, but I got the Purple Heart for that cotton picking finger,” Huffman said. “Oh, it hurt, but I kept going and it healed up. I've never had a single problem with it.”

It wasn't the only medal he took home. Huffman earned the Silver Star for Conspicuous Gallantry in Action, the Bronze Star for bravery and several others, including good conduct, American Defense and American Campaign medals.

He keeps his medals in a case above his bed and looks at them every day. He said they give him a sense of personal satisfaction, since he earned them while serving his country.

Now, Huffman lives a quiet life in Dayton, spending most afternoons on his front porch watching traffic pass.

His wife, Norma, died in 2007 after 60 years of marriage. Huffman has 12 children, 22 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

The lifetime member of the Dayton United Methodist Church still faithfully attends services each week.

And he still keeps that book — like a Bible — in the drawer beside his bed.

“Looking back, I've lived a very happy life and lived it to the fullest every single day, even during the war,” Huffman said. “I'm just a happy man.”

bpedersen@tribweb.com

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