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The Valley Reporter
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Linking local veterans to new Ken Burns series on WWII


By Janet Hubbard-Brown

"The War," a new Ken Burns public television series, which will start airing on Channel 33 on September 23, took six years to make. There are seven episodes. It relates the story of World War II both in the United States and around the globe, focusing on the lives and experiences of Americans from four geographically distributed communities transformed by the war.

The film interweaves vivid eyewitness accounts of the harsh realities of frontline combat with the memories of Americans who tried their best to carry on with the business of daily life at home while loved ones served overseas. The series, rather than creating an analysis from historians and academic experts, draws its narrative power exclusively from first-person stories that convey the full dynamics of the war's emotional impact.

In that same vein, I went to two local World War II veterans (both from Fayston) who, coincidentally, served in the Alsace region of France in the latter part of 1944, though under completely different circumstances. Arthur Williams left the Clark School, a boarding school in Hanover, New Hampshire, at age 18 to drive ambulances for the American Field Service (AFS), and Sherrill Cleland was drafted into the Army at age 20 from Ohio. Today they are Fayston neighbors for part of the year.
Williams' father was a colonel in North Africa at the opening of World War II. He had a brother at Paris Island and another brother, Sewall, was training for the 10th Mountain Division in Colorado. (The two brothers came to Vermont in 1948 to open a ski lodge at Mad River and ended up becoming permanent residents.) He knew that the American Field Service was accepting volunteers for the British and French armies for battlefield ambulance duty. He sailed for Italy on a British hospital ship, eventually joining the third Medical Battalion of the 4th Moroccan Mountain Division, First French Army. In November of 1944 his medical unit went into action in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace. No one was prepared for the massive counterattacks Hitler launched on December 16, which became the biggest battle of the Western Front: the Battle of the Bulge.

Sherrill Cleland's father had fought in World War I and had remained in the Reserves. As a boy, Cleland had a dream of attending West Point. As a teen, he was part of a program called ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program) that sent people to college to become the next round of officers. A native of Ohio, he went to Oberlin and was a third alternate appointment to West Point. When another candidate won the appointment and the ASTP disbanded, he began working in a factory that made gas masks. The money was good. Cleland had just settled in when the draft board contacted him. He went to Fort Bragg, joining others who had been in the ASTP. None of them had had basic training.

Cleland ended up in the Vosges Mountains on the front line at Epernel in October. He and his fellow soldiers had ridden up from southern France on a railroad cattle car, joining the Third Division. The mountains are higher than the Green Mountains, according to Cleland, with thick forests and rocky plateaus. There were no good paths. The foxholes had already been dug, and he climbed down in with one other soldier, each holding an automatic rifle. The soldiers were sent out regularly on night patrols, where they were supposed to capture a German and bring him back for interrogation. One night he came upon a soldier in a cannon company whose foot had been blown off by a "shoe mine," which was made out of wood so detectors wouldn't be triggered. The goal was to maim, not kill.

The medic, whom they called Doc, ran out to pick up the wounded man, and put his knee on another shoe mine and it blew up. Cleland, holding one end of the stretcher, was wounded, along with three others. They were carried to a Jeep, which served as an ambulance, and strapped on the flat top of the vehicle. Cleland's left thigh, and right hand and arm, along with his eyes, were injured.

At approximately the same time, Williams was picking up wounded soldiers in Dodge ambulances who would plead for him to drive slowly over the bumpy paths. The stretchers bearing the men had been shoved into the interior of the vehicles, where they lay beside him. The four-wheel-drive Jeep ambulances were manufactured in America, along with most of the weapons and tanks used by the French and the British. "The workers here were the real heroes," Williams said. "The guys who stayed home and worked day and night. How we did it -- it was a miracle!"

Cleland ended up spending around five weeks in the General Hospital in Epinal and was sent back on line, arriving at the front on Christmas Eve, where he remained on line until February. A bad case of hepatitis sent him back to the hospital, and after he improved he was sent back to fight for 90 days.

My father, who also fought in France, was the first to convince me that the experience of participating in war was a transformative experience. No one came back the same. The intimate moments that made the young soldiers grasp the meaning of the human condition are the most difficult to convey. That realization may have come later to many, as they were able to reflect back and capture those singular moments that remain forever imprinted on their psyches. Now in their autumn years, their courage is once again manifested in their willingness to be vulnerable as they tell their stories.  

Williams spoke about how when you're young you don't think you're going to die. "You get detached," he said. There is an image, though, that has never left him. He was at an aid station on the Rhine River. It was a bright, sunny day. In the back of an ambulance was a French soldier who had just died. Williams said, "He was wearing horn-rimmed glasses, and a gold watch. The sun was shining on his face. I thought he had probably just graduated from high school. He was just lying there."  Williams' eyes filled with tears. "I thought, some poor mother and father and grandparents...that's their son. I hope someone picks him up."
The war ended May 8, 1945.

Cleland had just been assigned to go to Japan and, had the bomb not been dropped on Hiroshima, he wonders if he would have been given a third chance. Sitting in his living room in Fayston, he talked about the buddy of his who had been wounded the same time Cleland was. The friend was badly wounded a second time, and was brought back to an area where they were under heavy bombardment. "It was rainy," Cleland said, "He was out there on top of that Jeep. Everybody else had left him. I went to him and talked to him, and finally, losing courage, I said, 'Allan, I'm going to go to the shelter.' I left him. Most of my life I had guilt feelings." He brushed his tears away and continued, "Years later at a reunion, I said to him, 'Remember when you were wounded the second time? It was raining and we were being bombarded. I finally just left."  Allan replied, 'I don't remember anything like that.' He had been unconscious."

Williams left Europe after six months because of an illness in the family. He carried honorable discharge papers form the American Army, American Field Service, French Army, and the U.S. Merchant Marines. When he re-entered his old boarding school to finish high school, he was allowed to keep his lights on later than the other students.

After Cleland returned home and was engaged to be married, he was, ironically, offered an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He thought about it but decided his "childhood notion [of war] was not the way it really is." He declined.

Williams is heading to Paris on Armistice Day to represent the ambulance drivers who served in World War II, which will take place in the first headquarters of the AFS, and soon Cleland will be joining another reunion of his battalion.

Those interested can go to to read more stories about Vermont veterans, to see videos of interviews, and to learn the times the series will be presented.


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