They are known as the greatest generation. And even for humble 97-year-old Elmer Ward of Mansfield, it’s a label that rings true.
“We were the generation that accepted responsibility,” Ward said. “We realized the sacrifice … We did what we had to do.”
What Ward did, like many others in that greatest generation, was help liberate Europe in World War II, serving as a Quartermaster with the U.S. Army’s 90th Infantry Division. He joined thousands of troops who entered France on D-Day and moved into Germany and later Czechoslovakia in five separate European campaigns including the Battle of the Bulge.
The specific details from Ward’s memories sometimes escape him, but that time in his life as a 21-year-old soldier hasn’t been forgotten by his family or his community. Ward will serve as the Grand Marshal of the second annual Mansfield Veterans Parade and Salute on Nov. 10.
Ward, who joined other veterans on a float at last year’s parade, is grateful for the honor although somewhat shy about the attention. He says he doesn’t think about those years in the Army often but “sometimes they drift back into my mind.”
The Illinois native only expected a short tour when he joined the Army in March 1941. Things were “laid back” in Tullahoma, Tennessee, where he was stationed with a truck maintenance unit.
But the mission of the “weekend warriors” changed after Dec. 7, 1941, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ward went from the truck maintenance unit to officer training school in March 1942. He was later promoted to Quartermaster and landed in Abilene, Texas, managing logistics for the 90th Infantry Division as they trained for combat. By the spring of 1944 the division had been sent to Manchester, England, to prepare for moving the unit into the European theater. Specifically he was making sure that the units that would hit the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, were fully equipped to do their jobs. He got to Sainte-Mere-Eglise, France ahead of the troops that landed on D-Day.
“Our purpose for getting there early was to establish where the supply points were because the division would be arriving in another day. So we had to be able to supply them with rations, gasoline, everything they needed.”
Keeping up to 14,000 troops supplied was Ward’s job for the next year. His unit was first assigned to the 1st Army Division under General Omar Bradley, and later transferred to the 3rd Army Division under General George S. Patton.
Once the Allied Forces began moving through Europe, Ward and his unit had to fight the dangers that lurked in the woods as they drove their supply trucks through the heavy forests staying ahead of troop movements.
“I lost several good friends. Our supply units moved so fast as they were moving ahead … they bypassed so many Germans back in the woods. And when we’d come by they would come out of the woods and kill our drivers.”
As forces moved through France and Belgium driving toward Germany, summer turned into winter and the troops faced some of their most difficult times. It was here on the western front in December 1944 that Allied Forces faced not only one of the last major Germany offensive campaigns of the war but the harsh northern European winter.
“It was a terrible winter,” Ward said. “There was snow on the ground and no place to get warm. It was so cold. We stayed with our routine: the units would come in every night after dark and each unit would pick up their supplies.”
The month-long battle would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest single battle fought by U.S. troops in World War II and the second bloodiest battle in American history, in which approximately 70,000 American soldiers died.
Ward doesn’t see himself as special because he was a part of a significant time in U.S. history
“Each one had a job to do and we did it, and I think we must have done it well. We moved on all the way.”
All the way for Ward was Susice, Czechoslovakia. He and his unit were there in May 1945 when Allied Forces declared victory and VE Day was being celebrated across the United States.
When Ward was discharged he headed back to civilian life in Illinois and the young wife he had left behind with the two year-old son he had never met. He had found more than just a job on base in Abilene back in 1942. He met a young Texas girl named Frances who was working on the base. They dated awhile and then got married in Phoenix while he was on leave from desert maneuvers.
“I knew I would be leaving,” he said. “My wife wanted to have a child. So that’s what we did. And it was difficult to just go off.”
He had a plan post-Army, starting his own business manufacturing metal products. After he sold his business, Ward and his family, which now included daughter Sue, returned to Abilene where he had a successful career and raised his family with Frances. He moved to Mansfield in 2004 with son John, where he is a member of First United Methodist Church.
As the memories drift back into his mind, Elmer Ward said he feels fortunate that at 21 years old he had the maturity to handle not only the job he had to do in the Army, but the emotional impact the war would have on him personally as he saw friends lose their lives.
“It’s a lot of responsibility. We were a generation that accepted the responsibility and grabbed hold of things and did it.”