By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
Editor’s Note: This article is republished from a 2016 Veteran’s Day event.
Typically I do not write articles in which there are anonymous sources… particularly not the main subject. However, in this case, I’m making a Veteran’s Day exception.
Let’s call this man Bill.
After the Veteran’s Day event at the VFW/Apopka Community Center, I followed a lead from The Apopka Voice Publisher Dale Fenwick to a dentist office over near Errol where something called Bright Smiles was taking place.
Dr. John Gammichia and a group of student volunteers from the UCF Pre-Dental Student Association and other volunteer dentists were offering free dental work for veterans. They provided teeth cleaning, fillings and extractions for veterans from 7AM until around 4PM. I could not get an exact count or any more specifics because the staff and Dr. Gammichia were too busy to talk to a reporter (I heard later it was over 100 in line before 9 AM).
The nerve of those guys!
By the time I arrived, the line was shorter but steady. Music was playing – “I’m proud to be an American” by Lee Greenwood. The grills from the Maitland Breakfast Club were blazing and it had the aroma of a large cookout or a tailgating row of cars and trucks at a football stadium. The temperature was an unexpected crisp 60-degrees, and all was right with the world. Three days removed from the most contentious election in history could not deter this moment.
This was as Americana a moment as you could find.
I wandered around looking for a story. Most everyone was courteous, but clearly in task-mode. I asked a couple of veterans if they had time to talk to me, but all of them politely said no. Finally, under a group of shade trees, I met a veteran with a story.
Bill was a tall, thin man that looked to be in his 80’s (although he had to be in his 90’s if he enlisted as an adult) with thick grey hair and a beard. He wore a Chicago Cubs cap, red sweatshirt, faded blue jeans and black boots. His wallet was chained to a belt loop in his back pocket. As I walked past he said hello, and I stopped and said hello back.
“What brings you out today?” I asked.
“I’ve had a toothache off-and-on for about a decade. I figured I should have it fixed before I die,” he joked.
Bill is from Holly Hill, which is a small town kind of swallowed-up between Daytona Beach and Ormond Beach. It sits mostly between US1 and the Halifax River.
“Holy Hell they call it over there,” he said.
Bill’s friend from Apopka told him about Dr. Gammichia’s free dental work for veterans, and he drove 60 miles to be at the event. Bill is on a fixed income and a tooth extraction is well outside of his budget.
“I hope they work on veterans outside of Apopka,” he said.
“As long as you have a great Veteran’s Day story,” I said to him. “That’s why I keep bugging you guys.”
“You a writer?” Bill asked.
“It depends on who you ask,” I said. “But that’s why I’m here. To tell a veteran’s tale.”
I sat down and leaned against a tree to Bill’s left, and began writing…
“I was a private in the 9th Infantry Division of the Army during World War II,” he said. “My unit fought in Algeria, Tunisia, Italy, and Normandy. In the early months of 1945, we were fighting in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest in Germany, which was a prelude to the bloody Battle of Aachen, which was just before the Battle of the Bulge. I was on a late-night watch by myself when out of the darkness a German soldier walked-up on me and before I could react, handed me his rifle.”
Bill’s voice went from calm to excited as he told this incredible tale.
“He could have shot me. And I would have shot him if he weren’t so damn quiet in approaching me. Instead, he surrendered. I wasn’t religious at the time, but I remember thinking that God had to be a part of the timing.”
As Bill walked the German soldier back to his camp, he was told to stand guard over him because there was no set-up to process prisoners. The two men sat in a foxhole until morning.
For hours they sat in silence until suddenly Bill’s prisoner started talking. “I’m not a soldier. I’m a farmer,” he said. “And I’m not a Nazi. I’m a German.”
Bill learned that the soldier’s last name was Bauer. He too was a private, about 20-years-old. Bill was not much older.
“He spoke pretty good English, better than my German anyway.”
“They took over before I was born. No one in my town liked them, but we were still Germans, so we fought to defend our homeland,” he said.
“It was a struggle to talk given the conditions and the language barrier, but somehow we bonded in that foxhole. We were no longer enemies. We were friends.”
Decades later, Bill looked-up Bauer from the small amount of information he had. He knew he was in the German military and that he lived in a small town near Frankfurt. He wrote a letter to a Bauer he hoped was the right one. Weeks later, he received a reply.
Bill wouldn’t tell me what they talked about, except to say that Bauer was very wealthy and often helped Bill with finances over the years until his death in 1990. The two men had two reunions after the war – in 1986 and 1988.
Bill did not have a moral to his story, it is but one of many soldier’s tales that should be shared more often than on Veteran’s Day.
And I have no moral either except to say that if two scared enemies, trained to kill, armed with rifles in the dark of night can somehow, by the Grace of God, come away not only alive but lifetime friends, then somehow… perhaps… Democrats and Republicans can find a way to get along too. Perhaps supporters and opponents of mayors, city commissioners, and school board members can find common ground and build their cities, towns, and communities together in unity.
Or at least be civil to one another on Facebook.
One last thank you to the veterans of Apopka, Holly Hill and around the nation. I hope you have a great weekend. Your service is forever remembered and honored.
And thanks to Bill, for your time and for your service too.