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Soon to be 100, veteran recalls close calls in World War II: ‘We knew we were battling evil’

Part of Fort Hackenberg, near Veckring, France, was heavily damaged by Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army during the advance on Metz, France, in 1944. Hackenberg is the largest underground complex among the series of forts known as the Maginot Line.

MICHAEL B. KELLER/STARS AND STRIPES

By SIMONE CARTER | The Dallas Morning News | Published: November 10, 2019

DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — At age 25, Army Capt. Arthur Wood always was prepared for “battling evil” in World War II: a pistol under his left arm, a rifle on his right shoulder and a little Bible in his breast pocket.

Now, about a week removed from his 100th birthday, the decorated infantryman is less confident about his mission this Veterans Day: delivering the keynote speech at his senior living community, Presbyterian Village North in Dallas.

“I’m scared to death,” Wood said, chuckling. He doesn’t know what his audience wants to hear, but said, “I’m going to tell them what I want. That’s one of the things I learned in 100 years.”

Serving under Gen. George S. Patton, Wood was one of the lucky ones. He never got injured, even though he said there were plenty of close calls.

In November 1944, Wood was there when U.S. forces surrounded the town of Metz in northeast France, forcing the Nazis to surrender that stronghold. The Gestapo secret police used Metz as their provincial headquarters and had occupied several buildings, including a cathedral and a Catholic school.

It was in the cathedral that Nazis had stockpiled several thousand firearms they’d seized from civilians. Wood said the American troops were happy to remove them from enemy hands.

The following month, Patton took three divisions to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. Wood’s 95th Infantry Division was stationed south of the bulge near the German defensive line, called the Siegfried Line.

There, Wood’s division formed a 20-mile front along the Saar River to defend against the Nazis. Then in January 1945, Allied forces won the monthlong battle.

Defending the front was tough, Wood said.

“[The Nazis] threw all they could against us to try to get through and break up the people who were going up to help in the bulge,” he said. “And we had to stop them.”

Another memory of the war that stuck with Wood was a prisoner-of-war camp near Paderborn, Germany.

Wood said American soldiers charged the camp and exhumed corpses from a mass grave despite the putrid smell. They marched the town’s high-schoolers by the bodies so that they’d know the Americans weren’t responsible for those deaths.

“We didn’t have time to kill that many people and put them into graves,” he said. “The Nazis had done it.

“We knew we were battling evil.”

In May 1945, Wood and about 20 other troops were seated on truck beds while traveling to Liège, Belgium. Looking up, they noticed an unusual number of fighter and transport airplanes racing through the clouds. Wood said they wondered, “What in the devil is going on up there?”

The troops heard the news when they arrived in town: Adolf Hitler had shot himself, and Germany had surrendered. The war in Europe was over.

That night, Wood and his friends enjoyed a delicious dinner at a local café, he said. He remembers its Belgian proprietor was elated the Nazis had fallen.

The man unearthed 20 crates of champagne that had been buried in his backyard, Wood said. He wanted to share his postwar rapture with the Americans.

“He’d saved it for celebration,” he said. “And [celebrate] we did.”

After the war, things calmed down for Wood. He sold life insurance for 53 years and met his wife, Cookie. They were married for 71 years and had four kids, 16 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren.

On Nov. 29, Wood said, the “whole fam-damily” will celebrate his 100th birthday. Maybe it will be another occasion for champagne.

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