BANGOR, Maine — More than 30 men who served with the 9th Infantry Division in World War II gathered in Bangor over the weekend for their 64th annual reunion.
Nicknamed the Octofoils, after the division’s red and blue insignia, the men, who belong to the 9th Infantry Division Association, are now in their 80s and 90s. They came from all over the country to reminisce, look at old pictures, conduct meetings and catch up with their war buddies during the three-day event, headquartered at the Ramada Inn.
“This is our 64th reunion and we’ve never missed a year,” said Bill Robey, 82, of Maryland. “No matter what was going on, we had our reunion. We have a ball.”
Robey, the group’s secretary-treasurer, said one reason the men of the 9th Infantry Division are so cohesive is that they stayed in the same unit for the duration of their service, unlike today, when soldiers might serve with as many as five or six units.
“So the continuity’s there. That’s why we’ve stuck together so many years,” he said.
Robey joined up with the 9th Infantry Division’s 15th Engineer Battalion in January 1945 in Germany.
“But I was over there before because I was in the invasion of Normandy,” he said. “I landed on Utah Beach on June the 6th of 1944 and I was 17½ years. I enlisted when I was 17 because you could do that if your parents gave permission.
“But the law said you were not to be sent overseas until you became 18,” he said. Asked why he was sent anyway, Robey said with a chuckle, “When Uncle Sam needs extra bodies he doesn’t care how old they are — he just ships them.
“I was scared to death, and anybody who says they weren’t scared is lying. I’ll guarantee you that.”
For Robey, the Army got into his blood. He did not retire until 1972. In all, he served “28 years, eight months and 17 days, and no one was counting. But I enjoyed it.”
Robey began a second career operating heavy equipment for construction companies and driving charter buses. “I’ve driven a bus in every state except Alaska,” he said, adding he still occasionally takes on a bus-driving job here and there.
Robey was among more than 30 division members — six of them over 90 — honored in a tribute by the U.S. Army Freedom Salute program. Each received a formal commendation signed by U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey and Army Secretary Pete Geren, as well as a commemorative pin.
Maine’s Freedom Salute ambassadors, Harold and Sharon Rideout of Hermon, helped hand out the certificates and letters.
“Anyone familiar with World War II appreciates the exploits of the 9th Infantry Division,” Kevin Hymel, U.S. Army Freedom Team program writer and editor, said at Friday’s ceremony.
“You men of the Octofoil were some of the first to fight the Axis powers when you landed in Algiers and Morocco. You helped push the Germans and Italians out of North Africa and Sicily,” he said.
“After D-Day, you cut off the Cherbourg peninsula and helped close the Falaise Pocket. You held the northern shoulder of the Bulge and exploited the Remagen bridgehead. You captured the industrial heart of Germany and you shook hands with the Russians,” Hymel said.
This year marked the first time the event has been held in Maine, thanks to Jim Merrill of Addison, whose father served with the division and belongs to the association. Merrill and his wife, Gloria, were deeply involved with the planning.
Many came with spouses, children and grandchildren. There even was a great-grandchild in the group.
The men of the 9th Infantry Division did remarkable things for their country. Here are some of their stories:
Charles Illsley, 83, came to the reunion from Colorado. During the earlier part of the war, Illsley was living in Newton, N.H., and working at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, building submarines. He contracted double pneumonia and lost his job.
“I got drafted because I was unemployed,” he said. He joined the 9th Infantry in Germany at Remagen Bridge.
“It was pretty earth-shattering for a 19-year-old kid,” he said. “My first night there was a night attack. Three of my buddies were killed. We were marching through a town, we were ambushed. Three of the guys walking behind me were killed. I looked behind me and they were gone. I was lucky. I was lucky all through the war.”
Though he wasn’t injured, he was nearly captured when he saw a group of soldiers standing in a field. He tapped one of them on the shoulder to find out who they were.
“And he turned around and it was a German. So he said ‘What’s the matter?’ in German, so I just high-tailed it in the opposite direction,” Illsley said. Later that morning, three Germans surrendered to him.
“They’d just had enough,” he said. He took them to a POW camp. “They followed me just like tame dogs. Nobody believed my story, but it happened.”
Now 86, Paul Schumacher of Selmer, Tenn., was a 19-year-old farm boy from Indiana when he got called up. He was in his third year of college, studying to be an engineer.
A combat infantryman with the 39th Regiment, he joined up with the 9th Division about the time it crossed the border from Belgium into Germany and fought his way across the country.
“There was so much noise going on. No one ever got any rest except a couple of hours here and there. I was always fatigued. I was always flat-out worn-out. That’s because of the shellings and bombings in the daytime and nighttime. There was just something going on — boom, boom, boom, bang, bang, bang, bang — all night long,” he recalled.
“I ended up at the Elbe River at Dessau, Germany, on the 18th of April, 1945. When we go to the river the Russians were just on the other side,” he said.
Though he would not be discharged until June of the next year, “that’s when the war ended for me. There were a couple of skirmishes here and there but we didn’t advance anymore after that.”
By that point, the war-weary German people had little left. The troops would share their food with local children, some of whom would eat a little and tuck the rest away to share with their families. Schumacher recalled rounding up a group of fellow American farm boys to help a teenage German girl, who was the only one left in her family, harvest her wheat.
His regiment was held in Germany until after the invasion of Japan in the fall of that year, shipping out in December and arriving in the U.S. in January.
Wilbert “Snuffy” Goldsmith, 88, was celebrating his 19th birthday at a New York City burlesque show starring Gypsy Rose Lee on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Army the next day, he said in an interview Friday night. After two months of basic training, he was among 1,200 soldiers shipped out on the Queen Mary.
“And it was the first trip out of New York,” so the ship had not yet been converted for military use.
“We didn’t have to make the bed. We got fed in the dining room. It was like a regular cruise, you know. I figured, ‘This Army’s great.’ Little did I know that from then on in I’d be sleeping in a cot,” he said with a chuckle.
Because most of the men in his unit came from the South, having gone through basic training at Fort Bragg, N.C., he was one of only two Jewish soldiers.
“They called me Jew Boy,” he said. “It wasn’t anti-Semitic,” he said. “It was because most of them didn’t know any Jews.”
He was among the first troops to land on the beach in Algiers, North Africa.
He got his first taste of fighting in the Sahara Desert, where he engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a fixed bayonet. “I got into a mess with five of the enemy in the desert and they never called me Jew Boy again,” he said.
He eventually was put in charge of the machine gun section because few of his fellow soldiers could convert millimeters to inches.
World War II veterans like the members of the 9th Infantry Division are becoming rare. Those who remain are getting on in age.
To that end, the association is in transition, noted member Terry Barnhart of Denver, Colo., whose father served with the 9th Division.
Barnhart is among the many sons and daughters who, as “legacies” or associate members, are picking up the torch.
Barnhart says that for some legacies, involvement in the association is a way to get to know their fathers, many of whom wouldn’t discuss the war because of the horrors they experienced and wanted to put behind them.
Others, he said, never knew their fathers because they were killed in action.