93-year-old WWII vets' wisdom of war: 'Take care of your buddy'
By EMILY SULLIVAN | The Palm Beach Post, Fla. | Published: November 9, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — A bond rooted in common ground, as much as contrast, ties two sprightly Boynton-area World War II veterans who collected a few battle stars each, dote on each other's tales and reflect with intent on Veterans Day.
One pal's infantry division was among the first U.S. troops to liberate a Nazi concentration camp; the other recalls shooting down two enemies as bullets hurled toward him.
"Buddy boy, I love you," says one vet to the other, with a hug.
Leon Rieder and Louis Miraglia, both 93, complement each other, filling gaps in narration and chuckling at the start of a story they're hearing for the hundredth time. Tucked into collared shirts, pressed khakis and WWII caps, "Lee" and "Lou" boast thick freckles, face creases, soft gray tufts of hair.
"We know where we came from, what we have accomplished," Miraglia said.
Both New York natives of emigre parents, the men became products of the WWII draft, hungry for the involvement the war promised while economic depression whisked away normalcy at home. Miraglia, his family from Sicily, joined the service March 18, 1944. By the first of April, Rieder, Jewish and of Austrian descent, followed his suit.
Both would receive good luck charms from their mothers: a $2 bill for one and sealed salamis for the other.
Miraglia and Rieder were two of swarms who would land in 1945 in Le Havre, France, forge paths ahead in Germany, celebrate in awe and alcohol its surrender, then accept reassignments. They would relinquish hygiene for stench, lose comrades to bloodshed and meet others whose influence they never forgot.
But they would not meet until landing decades later with their wives at Lakeridge Greens, a 352-home community west of Boynton Beach. There, they fell into a tennis partnership: Miraglia, the more adept runner, played the deuce side while Rieder, the sharp-shooter lefty, controlled the net.
Both men's club members and one still a tennis junkie, the two connect about twice a month and can banter for hours. Miraglia, a member of VFW 10556, says a couple of other WWII veterans live nearby but he and Rieder agree they are closest.
With Veterans Day in sight, they talked Thursday about battles, buddies and takeaways.
"You realize that we're all the same," Miraglia said. "Prejudices are acquired."
Miraglia was 18 years old when he joined the war effort after a year of studying mechanical engineering. Working in the cannon company of 10-man squads, he dug foxholes and recalls a track that led him to Heidelberg and Frankfurt.
Others in his infantry division, the 89th, would help free the Ohrdruf camp, the first Nazi concentration camp that American troops liberated, April 4, 1945. And, while he was not one, he remembered the appall.
"The reaction was astonishment, disgust ... it's hard to get the right words," he said. "Your job is to keep moving."
Rieder, who fought with the 153rd Army division, also entered the WWII effort at 18, shipped off to 10 weeks of basic training in Texas. He remembers the flood of German submarines and said once in battle, he took out two enemies hiding in trees with his .30 M1.
"Lee, we're being shot at," he'd been instructed.
"I sprayed the trees. And down they both came," he said.
Rieder would cross the Inn River, trail the infantry to Adolf Hitler's birthplace in Braunau am Inn, Austria, and collide with brash anti-Semitism. He said he earned three battle stars, but cannot recall which, and said his division lost around 800 men.
He pointed to Miraglia. "He's the real hero," he said. "These are the guys that took the most fire, the infantry boys, and they always will be respected by me."
Miraglia, who was awarded battle stars related to central Germany and the Rhine River, as well as a circa-1946 wool jacket with honor patches reflecting his 20 months overseas and his 15-bullet carbine, said everyone deserves "equal credit, no question about that ... one could not operate without the other."
To that, Rieder agreed.
Miraglia added his time as an infantryman "was the job that I was assigned" and still remembers "fear" and "anxiety" of war's unknowns, from his first night of combat as he passed by large, firing artillery.
"There's a, a whole canopy of, of emotions that run through you," Miraglia said. "It's hard to say how you feel, because you don't know." After two or three days, he added, those feelings vanish and are nudged out by new ones.
"Battle is just goin' from one spot to another and making sure you're, you're winning and, and making sure you don't get killed and shot," Miraglia continued. "And takin' care of your buddy. And your buddy's takin' care of you."
Rieder chimed in. "Exactly right," he said, echoing the terror of battle but the assurance of camaraderie.
Miraglia added, "That's the most important thing. The guy alongside you is as important as you are."
On Veterans Day, the pair will be expected to think of old pals, old memories. Miraglia said he also hopes it is a day that people, especially those who are younger, will appreciate not only veterans but more so the living conditions available today as a result of WWII efforts.
That includes relative peace, safety, chances for education and progress, he said.
"We wouldn't be enjoying the marvelous, the marvelous, comforts and security that we have," Miraglia said. "You can become anything you want, if you really want to do it."
Having once felt like an outsider, Miraglia said all things considered, he came out all right.
And to that, Rieder answered, "You sure did, baby!"
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