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Veterans pack up memories on return trip to Europe

The grave of Gen. George Patton is marked with a simple white cross at the American Military Cemetery in Bastogne, France. It's the same as all the other graves, except that it faces the other markers, as if to indicate, even in death, that he is a leader of men. John Tate of Spring Hill thought that was rather remarkable when he visited France last October. "I was in Patton's Third Army during World War II," Tate said. "I went all the way across Europe with the 537th Engineers, Light Pontoon Company, from Omaha Beach in Normandy to Austria at the end of the war."

When talking to Tate about his trip, you feel it was important for him to go back, as if to finally pull together the strings of his memories. "As young soldiers, all we saw was the devastation that war had brought to the countryside," Tate remembers. "There's no more rubble in the cities and towns, and everything has been rebuilt," he said.

The price that was paid to win back those cities and towns is marked by the crosses and Stars of David in rows of graves by the thousands in the immaculate and beautifully kept American cemeteries in Belgium and France. Tate and his wife, Gertrude, also visited the American cemetery a few miles from the beachheads of Normandy. They were with six other men from Tate's old Army outfit and their wives on this journey into the past.

The fact that they were all together on this trip across Europe seemed like a miracle to John and Gertrude Tate. He hadn't seen any of the men from his outfit for 45 years, although the 537th Engineers have had several reunions since the end of the war.

One of the soldiers, Don Cornell from Colorado, had been gathering information for years about the whereabouts of many men from the company, but he wasn't able to track down Tate until 1988. He had moved from his old address in Rosedale, N.Y., to Valley Stream, Long Island, in New York and finally to Spring Hill in 1974. When Cornell's invitation to a reunion in Arizona finally reached Tate and his wife, they traveled out west to meet his old Army buddies in 1988. That was when seven of them, including Tate, decided to return to Europe in October 1989 with their wives as they retraced their journey.

They met at Orly Airport in France and went back over the French countryside, over the land where they had built bridges, dodged artillery fire, rebuilt roads and pushed aside obstacles that might have kept the Army from moving ahead.

"We even went back to Omaha Beach, where we had landed in June 1944," Tate said. "There are a few of the Nazi bunkers and pillboxes still there." He described the slope of the hills and high embankments along the beach, and said it is hard to imagine today the bravery of men facing direct fire and still advancing over those hills.

"We were attached to the 12th and 20th Corps of Patton's Third Army," Tate said. "Our outfit received four battle stars for service in major conflicts." Tate received the Bronze Star for meritorious service at the end of the war.

Again and again, Tate commented on how much Europe has changed in the past 45 years. "Everything has been rebuilt," he said.

But the American soldiers haven't been forgotten by the French people. Tate and his friends found two families that befriended men from their outfit in France during the war. "They showed us where we left one of our bridges," Tate said, "and they remembered that we left the bridges because we were under a heavy artillery barrage." One of the families invited the seven returning soldiers and their wives to join them for wine and champagne. A lot of memories surfaced that afternoon, Tate said.

During the year and a half that Tate was in Europe during WWII, he went all the way from the coast of France to Austria. "I was among the men that first saw the horrors of Auschwitz," he recalls. On the return trip to Germany, their small party visited Dachau, and Tate said it vividly brought back the horrors of that first glimpse of a German death camp.

"At Dachau, the gas chambers and gas jets are still in the ceilings. One can all but smell the burning of flesh," Tate said. The day he entered Auschwitz in 1945 has never left Tate's memory.

"It was a sight I'll never forget," he said. "There were great big open pits where they just bulldozed the bodies in." His wife, Gertrude, said she simply cannot believe that the people of Germany and, indeed, the rest of the world did not know what was happening at the death camps. Her eyes flash with anger when she says, "There were farmhouses and people near Dachau. No one did anything to stop it."

With all the sad memories, there were proud moments of victory to recall, and a lot of laughter to remember.

"We weren't supposed to fraternize with the Germans when we occupied the country," Tate said, "but that didn't say we didn't." John laughs apologetically, and says, "You know how GIs were."

The Tates and their friends visited France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Austria. They met a 70-year-old woman who was an interpreter for the generals who accepted the surrender of the Nazis, and another man who said he was a bellhop at the hotel in Luxembourg where all the officers were staying at that time. He recalled that Gen. Omar Bradley was the best tipper of them all.

The Tates returned to Spring Hill with the usual pictures that tourists take, but I had the feeling that John Tate brought back for himself a final chapter to WWII.

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