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Veteran: Sam Baxter MAG
My grandfather, Sam Baxter, is a World War II veteran. He received the Bronze Star for his heroic actions in volunteering to save a forgotten family.
In which branch of the service did you serve, and why did you join?
I served in the Army in the European Theater. I was most definitely drafted.
What memorable experiences occurred during the war?
I was in the field artillery unit which consisted of twelve 155 millimeter Howitzers. A Howitzer is a gun that shoots over a hill and explodes on contact with the target. Our battalion had advanced to Belgium in the bitter cold of winter. Several of us, including our commanding officer, stayed in a Belgian home for a few days. Then we had to retreat 20 miles because the German tanks were very, very close. This was called the Battle of the Bulge.
In the home where we had lived we left a grandmother, daughter and a granddaughter. We didn't discover this until after we retreated. The commanding officer asked for two volunteers to go back and get them.
I volunteered with another sergeant. Some U. S. soldiers were laying minefields and we had to be guided back so we wouldn't step on mines. We went back in a truck and it was very scary and quiet.
When we got to the village we couldn't find the family anywhere. We looked all over the house and found them hiding in a corner of the cellar. At first they thought we were Germans, but when they saw who we were they were so happy. We drove them back the 20 miles we had come. They had a place they could go, so we dropped them off and then rejoined our own troops. For that effort, we were awarded the Bronze Star.
What was it like to liberate prisoners after years of fighting?
When we finally liberated a concentration camp in Belgium, we found Greek, Italian, Russian and Polish prisoners. There were about 200 in a building surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence. They were all so frail and thin. Some had not had a shower or bath for six months. They had not eaten much and were pushed around by the German soldiers quite a bit.
At one German prison camp, my Greek friend and I decided to go in and see if there were any Greek prisoners. Again we found many nationalities: Italian, Russian, Greek and probably some Polish.
As we walked into the area where the Greek prisoners were and they discovered we were Greek-Americans, well, they just let out a big 'Whoopee!' We had a great conversation with them in Greek. They thanked us for liberating them. There was a Greek priest in that group who told us there had been 90 of them a few months before, but the number had dwindled to 20 because the Germans had killed most of them.
We didn't know what to do to help them. We finally ran back to our camp and got cartons of cigarettes, which were very hard to come by. We gave them to the Greek prisoners and they started to open them up to smoke, but the priest stopped them and said, "Nobody smokes these cigarettes. They're going to be used to exchange for things that will help us get back to Greece. "
In the meantime, one of the Greek prisoners who was very, very thin walked up to me and gave me an icon of a Greek saint about an inch wide and two inches high, with broken glass. He told me it had saved him and his buddies. They were on their way back to Greece now, while we Americans still had the war to win. He said, "I hope this icon can protect you like it protected us, " and it did. I came home without a scratch.
That was 50 years ago. I put the icon on my mantel at my bedside. It's still there and I kiss it every morning and every night.