Seventy years is a long time to remember, and for World War II veteran Walter Ross of Homewood, many of the details of his service have faded and finally disappeared.
Fortunately, he and his wife of almost 69 years, Betty, together can piece together some of the memories of that time.
During an interview earlier this summer, the first thing Walter and Betty did was show a framed display of medals and patches from his days as an Army mortar operator. Betty then went to find his Army cap, which he wore for the rest of the interview.
His dog tags are there. The medals include several for marksmanship. Two Bronze Stars. The patches include his corporal stripes and one marking his participation in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the bloodiest battles U.S. troops ever fought.
There's another token of his service during that significant point in history: a piece of shrapnel that was removed from his back.
Walter didn't need to see that to remind him of his wounds. He has carried a reminder with him every day since. It wasn't the only shard of metal to hit him.
“He's still got some in his back, but that was the piece they took out,” Betty said.
“They said they couldn't operate, because it was too close to the vitals,” Walter said. “That made me happy,” he added with a wry smile.
Betty then reminded Walter about a fellow soldier who came to his aid when he was hit.
“When you were wounded, he was there. Lewis,” she said, recalling the man's last name. His first name was beyond recall at the moment. “(Walter) had these wounds in his back, and he took and stuffed whatever he had there in the wound so he could breathe.”
Betty said they didn't know much about Lewis for years. Then one day long after the war, they got a call from him. He was traveling through the area and asked if he could stop by.
“And that's when he told us what he had done,” Betty said. “So that was kind of an interesting thing to happen.”
The details Mr. Lewis supplied filled some gaps in the story.
“I didn't know what was going on at the time,” he said. “I guess when you're wounded, your mind just forgets it. You don't remember it. Eventually it comes back.”
Frozen and wounded
Another memory from the battle: The cold.
The battle began Dec. 16, 1944, in fog and mist, but by Dec. 22, “a hodgepodge of snow, blizzards, fog and rain,” according to “Weather Effects During the Battle of the Bulge,” by Marvin D. Kays.
It was on Dec. 23, in the middle of that wintry mess, that Walter was hit by shrapnel.
He might not remember much about that moment, but he remembers the weather.
“It was real cold. I got frostbite in the right hand,” he said. “With the small mortar, you hold the controls in your bare hand.”
And he remembers the march into battle.
“You had all the equipment to haul with you,” he said. “You had jeeps behind you. Stuff had to be instantly set up to fire. Drop down on your knees, put it together, bring the ammunition up.”
Long distance romance
Meanwhile, Betty was back home in Harvey, keeping up a steady stream of correspondence with Walter.
“He wrote me a lot of letters,” she said. “They were all censored. In his letters — I've still got 'em — He couldn't tell you anything. They would just take it out. I loved getting the letters.”
But mail wasn't always reliable getting to the troops, and in some of his letters, Walter wondered why he wasn't hearing from his fiancé.
“He didn't know I was writing,” Betty said. “He'd say 'why don't you write?'”
Love of country
Walter was born in Scotland. His family moved to America when he was very young, and he remembers becoming a citizen while in the service.
“They called us out one day, took a picture,” he said. “A dozen of us from various countries.”
Betty said he remains a very patriotic person.
“He loves his flag. We've got one in the back yard,” she said. “It's funny. Lately, when every time we go by it, he salutes.”
Back home to build a life
Walter was working at Buda Engine Company when he was drafted in 1943. His father had worked there, and he got a job at the company right out of high school. He and Betty were engaged to be married when his draft notice arrived.
When he returned, they did not waste time.
“He was discharged in October 1945. We got married in November,” Betty said.
“I'll never forget the day I got married,” Walter said. “You've heard of couples that had to get married. We had to get married because we loved each other.”
He had grown up in Harvey and returned there after the war. He also returned to work for Buda as a machine operator. The company was later acquired by Allis Chalmers, and Walter became a quality control inspector.
Learning by doing
When the young couple decided they wanted to buy a house, they mentioned the idea to Betty's parents. Her father suggested they build one. Next door.
So Walter and his father-in-law started building, even though they had no construction training.
“There was this area in Harvey where they were building these small houses,” Betty said. “If they didn't know what to do, they'd walk to that neighborhood to see what they were doing and then come home and do it.”
So Walter learned carpentry by building a house. It became a life-long hobby.
“Everybody helped everybody then,” Betty said. “He's helped our friends. They helped each other build.”
One house he helped build was Marvin and Marilyn Austin's. The couples were good friends, and Marvin and Walter continued working on construction projects together for many years.
“He had surgery on his shoulders about the same time Marvin had a heart attack,” Betty said.
“They were doing some work down our street and were up on a roof. They said, 'If the doctors could see us now!' They had a lot of fun.”
The Rosses raised a family of three children, Carol, Jim and Patty. They now have four grandchildren, Jason Chad, Kelly and Allison, and two great-grandchildren, Andrew and Mady.
“It's a shame he can't remember some of this stuff,” Betty said.
“It just drops out of your mind altogether,” Walter added.
But they have reminders: his Army cap; photos; letters; the display of badges, medals and that piece of shrapnel. And they have a sketch drawn by a fellow soldier who was an artist. It's a picture of Walter shaving outside.
The reminders help, but mostly they remember together.
Photos by Eric Crump/The Chronicle
Contact Eric at [email protected]