Growing up, I attended Veterans Day parades just like a lot of other children. I stood with my parents as proud men marched by, their heads held high, wearing decades-old — but still neatly pressed — fatigues and spit-shined boots.
Some wore medals, and others did not — but all wore the same expression: The expression of men who had seen far too much in service to country but who would, without question or hesitation, do it again.
America, in our house, was sacred — and so, too, were the men and women who had stood a post to preserve and defend the freedoms we hold dear. It wasn't until I was older that I realized just how much my own family had given in that regard.
My grandfather, a World War II veteran, died of cancer when I was 15 years old. He hadn't talked much about the war — when asked, he always repeated the same two stories: one about eating canned spaghetti for Christmas dinner and the other about a kind Belgian woman who had let him pass a cold night in her basement, despite knowing she could be killed for helping an American soldier.
But PopPop, as we called him, never told us a lot of things — and in the months and years after his death, a picture began to take shape.
Born in 1917, William Franklin Greenplate was well into his mid-20s — with a wife and three young children — when he was assigned as a tank mechanic to the 12th Armored Group, 9th Armored “Phantom” Division.
As the 9th set up in Diekirch, southeast of Bastogne, Belgium, the region quickly got hot — and it became clear the Germans were coming for Bastogne.
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, called the 101st Airborne Division (the Screaming Eagles) in from Paris, and Gen. George Patton turned several divisions in the south toward Bastogne — but someone had to hold the Germans off until they could get into position.
And in that moment, Team SNAFU was born. Comprised of a ragtag bunch of leftovers — many members of that team had seen most of their units obliterated and no longer had a “home” — Team SNAFU was the name given to the last line of defense the Allies had to keep the Germans out of Bastogne.
PopPop was an expert marksman in addition to being a tank mechanic, but many of the men who held the line alongside him were cooks or clerks who had raised a hand when asked, “Which of you can still hold a rifle, stand a post?”
And then, the Germans came. For six days, in the bitter cold, American soldiers stood their ground. They were outnumbered and outgunned, and the attacks came over and over again. But still, the line held.
Patton arrived just before Christmas, and the tide of the Battle of the Bulge turned. But the battle was truly won by the men who held his place for him until he got there.
One of the things we found while searching through PopPop's things was a simple piece of paper issued by the Department of the Army:
That paper was accompanied by the following note:
The Combat Command A, 9th Armored Division is cited for extraordinary heroism and gallantry in combat in the vicinity of Waldbillig and Savelborn, Luxembourg from December 16 to December 22, 1944 by repulsing constant and determined attacks by an entire German division. Outnumbered five to one, with its infantry rifles companies surrounded for most of the time, clerks, cooks, mechanics, drivers and others manned the 10.000 yard final defensive line. Supported by the outstandingly responsive and accurate fire of its artillery battalion, this widely dispersed force stopped every attack for six days until its surrounded infantry were ordered to fight their way back to them. This staunch defense disrupted the precise German attack schedule and thus gave time for the United States III and XII Corps to assemble unhindered and then launch the coordinated attack which raised the siege of Bastogne and contributed to saving much of Luxembourg and its capital from another German invasion. The outstanding courage, resourcefulness, and determination of this gallant force are in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army.
The Presidential Unit Citation has only been given since 1941, when the U.S. entered World War II after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.
You can see the award below, worn by the soldier on the right. PopPop is on the left:
A simple blue ribbon, framed in gold, for the simple men who for six days were greater than even they had believed.
This Veterans Day, especially with this story in mind, it seems fitting to remember Gen. Patton's words: “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men.”
Please note: This is a commentary piece. The views and opinions expressed within it are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of IJR.