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On this Memorial Day, a journalist wishes she’d asked her father, a war vet, more questions

VernMcGarity |

Vernon McGarity |

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Updated: June 28, 2013 6:25AM

It’s nearly over.

The obituaries of World War II soldiers are disappearing; their stories of heroism in the conflagration of Europe or the hell of the Pacific slipping from yellowed news clips into spontaneous combustion.

I suppose it’s because my father was a war hero — a winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross in the Pacific campaign — that I clip the obits of World War II soldiers and keep them in a box for “future reference.”

Sometimes I wonder if it’s my way of keeping my father alive. He died at the age of 62 and the stories of his heroism he never discussed.

How I regret the questions I didn’t ask; the things I still don’t know. How each one of my three sisters seems to have a piece of Dad’s story, but not enough to complete the puzzle.

Last Tuesday, Medal of Honor winner Vernon McGarity, a hero of the legendary Battle of the Bulge, died at the age of 91.

McGarity was born six years after my father and fought in an entirely different setting; a war hero who did not fight in the humid stink of a Pacific swamp; but a freezing European forest in the Ardennes. The battle lasted six weeks and resulted in thousands of American casualties.

A technical sergeant from Tennessee, McGarity was not in an airplane dropping bombs like my father, a master sergeant from Maryland — but on the ground rescuing wounded solders and destroying German weapons.

He fought as a member of the 99th Infantry Division in December 1944, during Adolf Hitler’s last war offensive which caught the Allies unaware — and resulted in the Allied forces, which had been moving toward Germany after D-Day, initially being pushed back. When the bloody battle was over, the Allies were on their way to Berlin.

Here is an excerpt from McGarity’s obituary in the New York Times, which noted Hitler had hoped to defeat the British and Americans in the Ardennes so he could concentrate on fighting the Soviet Union on the eastern front.

“The 99th was hailed as heroic in the battle, holding its position under withering fire until reinforcements came. Though outnumbered 5 to 1, it inflicted casualties by a ratio of 18 to 1.

“Sergeant McGarity was ‘painfully wounded’ near Krinkelt, Belgium, the Medal of Honor citation said. But after receiving treatment he refused to be evacuated and rejoined his unit to direct them in the ensuing battle.

“So tenaciously did these men fight on orders to stand firm at all costs that they could not be dislodged despite murderous enemy fire and the breakdown of communications,” the citation said.

“On Dec. 16, the battle’s first day, Sergeant McGarity risked his life to rescue a wounded soldier. Throughout the night he exhorted his comrades to repel the enemy. At daybreak the Germans attacked with tanks and infantry. Dashing to where he could fire a rocket launcher, he destroyed the lead tank. Three other tanks withdrew under fire.

“He rescued another wounded American, then directed what the citation called ‘devastating fire’ on a German light cannon. When ammunition ran low, he braved gunfire to retrieve ammunition stashed 100 yards away.

“He then single-handedly attacked a machine-gun nest, killing or wounding all the gunners. Only when his squad’s last round had been fired were the Germans able to advance and capture him and his troops.”

Sergeant McGarity spent the next six months in a prisoner-of-war camp and eventually worked for the Veterans Administration after the war.

I know what my father did after the war; he married my mother, raised four daughters and a dog named Daisy and had a distinguished career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Dad may never have talked about the war, but for a woman who would become a journalist — how strange it was I asked him so few questions.

Sneedlings . . .

Tuesday’s birthdays: Gladys Knight, 69; Kylie Minogue, 45, and Carey Mulligan (right), 28.

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