CHICAGO — More than six decades after he left military service at the end of World War II, Bill Howland still tears up at one particularly bad memory among many bad memories.
An Army medic, he removed the leg of a fellow soldier in the cellar of a French home that was being attacked by Germans in 1945, Howland said. A few minutes later, the man died.
"That was a terrible day," Howland said. "I've thought about doing that for so many years, and I know there's nothing I could have done that I didn't do."
When Memorial Day weekend rolls around each year, Howland, 89, of Lisle, tries to stay busy to avoid dwelling on that memory and others. He attended a wreath laying ceremony Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Richard J. Daley Center just before the Memorial Day parade. Wearing a red military uniform, he accepted thanks for his service and posed for smartphone photos with members of younger generations.
On other occasions, Howland looses sharp criticisms of the American foreign policy that has developed since he came home in 1945. He said he sometimes talks with local high school students during history units on World War II and 1940s Europe.
"I try to prevail upon them to implore our government to stay out of wars … we have more important things to do than shoot people up all over the world," he said.
Military records show he enlisted April 21, 1943. He said he wanted to be a pilot but landed in an infantry unit. While exiting a truck with a group of other infantrymen one day in the fall of 1943 in Italy, he was singled out and Told "You'll be a medic," Howland said.
With no medical experience, he was outfitted with bandages, morphine, scissors, tourniquets and a pre-penicillin anti-bacterial powder called sulphanilamide – and was charged with saving lives.
"It was psychologically an extremely difficult situation," he said.
He said he removed the leg of his fellow soldier in the middle of winter in the French region of Alsace-Lorraine. After spending a day darting back and forth across a road amid German machine-gun fire, he holed up in a home with several other soldiers. A German tank fired on the home, scattering brick that severely damaged the soldier's leg. Howland placed a tourniquet on the man's thigh, sawed off the rest of the leg and gave him morphine. He then waited in the cellar with the man as other US troops retreated. The man died and he fled, diving into a frozen river and waiting there until German troops left to rejoin his platoon in a nearby town.
He was able to overcome most of the psychological trauma that followed the war by talking informally about his experiences with other veterans, he said. He also participates in all the parades and observances he can. He views Memorial Day as just another one of those opportunities.
"I think about it (the war) sometimes, but I don't get up in the middle of the night and beat the walls," he said.