Memorial Day. Remembrance Day.
Al Rusch doesn’t like to remember his days trudging through France to Germany and then to Czechoslovakia. In fact, he says he tries not to remember. But he does remember. And he has stayed in touch with several of the men who did that trudging with him. But they are all dead now. So, he shared some of his memories with us. Perhaps for the friends with whom he can no longer share stories.
Rusch, at 18, tried to enlist with the Air Corps, but they turned him down. So he waited at home in Wisconsin to be drafted. The Army came calling and he left the Midwest for basic training in South Carolina.
He was assigned to the Yankee Division of the 180th Field Artillery Battalion.
“It was an old Massachusetts outfit they (Army officials) busted up and brought in a bunch of Midwesterners,” Rusch said.
The best of the officers and noncommissioned leaders stayed with the unit, he said.
One of them said if they didn’t want to be shipped out to the frontlines, they could flunk basic training and their core tests. Rusch said he went through basic three times and took the tests twice. Basic was in South Carolina, core tests were in Georgia and field maneuvers were in Tennessee — in winter, and all they had were summer fatigues.
“But by the time we got over there we were all really well trained,” he said.
They left New York on a small ship in August 1944. It was so small everyone was stuck in the hold, Rusch said. They hit bad weather on the Atlantic and just about everyone was seasick. One of his friends, Hugh Alexander, was sick from the moment he set foot on the deck until he was on dry land in France.
“It wasn’t too bad for me. When the bad weather settled, they let us back on deck and gave us something to eat. It was greasy and cold and that’s when I lost it,” he said.
Yankee Division landed on Utah Beach and made its way to Videcosville, France.
Rusch was a member of the survey section, his job was to go ahead of the men and map out what was ahead of them, take the maps back from the frontline to the fire batteries and another in his group would take the information to the guns.
“It was a month before we saw combat,” Rusch said. Then they were in the thick of it until around Christmas, when they were pulled back for a three-day break. Following that, they were sent into what is now known as the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes. He said they were in it for five to six weeks and then pulled back for another three days of rest. After that, they were in it until the end of the war.
From the time the 180th established a command post at Videcosville on Sept. 7, 1944 until May 8, 1945, Rusch and his fellow soldiers were in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.
Part of Rusch’s job was to take the maps they made back to the command post. One of his most harrowing experiences was making one of those journeys. After the maps were delivered, he started back to where his team was. It was raining and sleeting and the mud was so deep, it was hard to make progress. He started across an open field and the German’s 88mm field artillery started coming in.
“I flopped down in the mud. The shelling was so heavy it shook the ground. And I thought that was going to be one hell of a way to die.”
He said one shell came in right beside him, but didn’t explode and he knew he had to get out of there, so he did.
“I couldn’t see where I was going. I just started moving. I did not know how long or how far. I came up on a stone fence and just flopped down and stayed there until it was over.”
He found his team taking shelter in a root cellar, a place that would have survived all but a direct hit. It had a little stove in the corner and they were baking potatoes. They fixed him one with butter and salt and pepper.
“It tasted like heaven. I had more than one of those baked potatoes,” he said.
Rusch said they crossed the Rhine and were headed for Berlin and could have taken it, but they were pulled back so the Russians could take it.
Rusch was awarded a Bronze Star “for heroic achievement in connection with military operations against the armed enemy in the vicinity of Moyenvic, France,” according to a newspaper account in his archives.
“I think they gave it to me because I made it through without getting hurt,” he said.
When Rusch came home, he was among the U.S. military personnel transported on the original Queen Mary.
He said he debated going to college when he came home, but was too restless. Eventually he took a job with a feed company in Wisconsin and worked for it for 25 years. Moving to Arizona, he continued to work for feed companies and then in 1988, retired to Payson.
Last year, Rusch heard about the Honor Flight service, which provided free trips to veterans, and contacted it. He was going to take one of their trips back to Washington, D.C. in late April, but there was a mix up and now he will be seeing the memorials in September.
When the community gathers at one of the Memorial Day events in the Rim Country this weekend or at the formal program on Monday, May 30, remember those who have survived and carry the memories of the many armed encounters they experienced and the friends they have lost from those times.
Memorial Day events
The annual Pioneer Cemetery tribute begins with a flag-raising ceremony at sunrise Saturday, May 28, after which the cemetery will be opened for visitation.
The Mountain Meadows tribute will begin at about 10 a.m., Sunday, May 29, sponsored by Messinger Payson Funeral Home with the support of the Payson Patriotic Events Committee, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.
There will be a flag-raising ceremony at the Mazatzal Hotel and Casino at 8 a.m., Monday, May 30, with patriotic music and a program to follow.
The main Memorial Day tribute will take place at the Veterans Memorial at Green Valley Park, starting at approximately 10 a.m., Monday, May 30. Presented by the Payson Patriotic Events Commit-tee, the program will include patriotic music, a presentation of the colors, an address by Mayor Kenny Evans and guest speakers. There will be a tribute by the Payson Military Honor Guard, including a rifle salute and the playing of “Taps” and a bagpipe presentation of “Amazing Grace.”
In addition to the formal ceremonies planned for Memorial Day Weekend, other events include:
• Beaver Valley Day, starting at 8 a.m., Saturday, May 28. The theme is Beaver Valley Day at the Beach. It starts with a pancake breakfast from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.; continues with Firefighter Water Olympics from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; plus, throughout the day, food, crafts, volleyball; and an outdoor movie at approximately 8 p.m.
• Payson Farmers Market will open its third season at 8 a.m., Saturday, May 28 at Sawmill Crossing, behind Chili’s Grill and Bar and continue until noon.
The market runs May 28 through October and includes most of the same vendors from last year. Wares include pickles, pastries, dog treats, sauces, oils, goat cheese, fruits and vegetables, jams, jellies, honey, artisan breads, gluten free pasta, hummus, granolas and trail mixes, relish, tea, coffee, lotion, chocolate, Gila County beef and salsa.
• A Memorial Day breakfast by the Hellsgate Fire Department Auxiliary Fireflies from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., Saturday, May 28 at Fire Station 22 in Tonto Village. The station is at 151 Mathews Lane; to reach it, travel one mile in on the Control Road off Highway 260.
The menu includes sausage, biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, juice and coffee for $5 for adults and $3 for children 10 and under. There will also be a bake sale featuring muffins, coffee cakes, cookies and jams.
• The Payson Masonic Lodge #70 will be holding its annual barbecue from noon to 4 p.m., Saturday, May 28. It is $10 for adults and $5 for children under 10 for a plate of deep-pit barbecue, cole slaw, beans, a dessert and a drink. There will also be a horseshoe toss smack down, with registration starting at 9 a.m.
• Payson Area Dutch Oven gathering at Rumsey Park at 1 p.m., Saturday, May 28, at Ramada 3. Bring a Dutch oven and favorite recipe and fixings. Preparation and cooking will start at 1 p.m., with service beginning at 5 p.m.
Enjoy an afternoon of food and fun and share Dutch oven cuisine. For further information, contact Mac Freezor at (928) 472-2449 or John Swenson at (928) 472-3331.