Every time the 45th Field Artillery Battalion holds a national reunion, the group's chairman, Memphian Brad Rice, reads a list of members who have passed away. On Friday, during the group's meeting in Memphis, he had to share more depressing news: This would be the World War II veterans' last reunion.
"Nobody else wants to handle it," says Rice. "I'm 87 and don't do things as quickly as I used to, and my wife can't do well these days and I need to spend more time with her."
There's another reason, too: The 45th started WWII with more than 550 members. Today, there are just 34 survivors, and only five of those are able to travel.
But they weren't always so frail. The battalion landed on Utah Beach in 1944 just one month after D-Day and battled its way across France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Germany, firing as many as 2,000 rounds a day from its 105mm and 150mm howitzers. By war's end, the official U.S. Army history reports that the 45th "traveled 3,000 miles from battery position to battery position. It took over 8,000 prisoners -- a record which few artillery battalions can approach."
Rice didn't see front-line duty. When his commanding officer learned that he had graduated from Yale and -- more importantly to the Army -- that he could type, Rice was made a warrant officer in the personnel division. Primarily responsible for the men's payroll -- yes, soldiers got paid even during battle -- that role didn't keep him out of danger, and he especially remembers when his group got bogged down during the winter in the Hurtgen Forest in Germany.
"The Germans would shell the trees, and they would just splinter and send shrapnel everywhere," he says. "We would build these huts out of logs and sod and take cover in those." Today, he points out the rows of campaign ribbons pinned to his blue blazer: "European Theater with four oak clusters. Victory Medal. American Defense Medal. Good Conduct Medal -- oh, everybody got one of those. Unit Medal with oak leaf cluster."
The 45th began holding national reunions in 1984. During their last visit here two years ago, the group dined at what may seem an unusual location for soldiers who fought in Germany: Erika's, a German restaurant downtown.
"Oh, we had it in for the Nazis, but there was a big difference between them and the regular Germans," Rice explains. "Nobody had any objections. It's good food."
Besides, many of the old soldiers would prefer to put those memories behind them, says Rice. "When they come here, they don't come to talk about the war. The videos we watch are from previous reunions, the photo albums are of reunions. Some of them may tell stories [about the war] that are funny, but others have a hard time with it."
When the war ended, Rice got married and landed a job with the U.S. Department of Commerce, specializing in international trade. That job brought him to Memphis in 1962, where he has lived ever since. He took over the battalion reunions in 1986.
"It became like a family, this group. We know everybody's children, and even their great-grandchildren," he says. "It's sad that this is going to be the last one."