Family stories conveying the tragedy of a lost opportunity to connect with someone who may have otherwise been significant in one’s life are common.
For my father James M. Griffith, who passed away this May at Sarah A. Todd Memorial Home, that person was his uncle Harold Griffith. I have often found myself thinking of my father’s stories about his uncle’s death in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II and the significance of that sacrifice to his family.
On a cold clear day in January 1945 my Great Aunt Almeda opened her door to receive a telegram from the War Department. It notified her that her husband, Harold, had died in Belgium on Dec. 21, 1944 while serving with the 30th “Old Hickory” Division. Almeda now faced a less certain future as a single mother of two young children, 6-year-old Edward and 5-year-old Harriet. Fortunately she received a lot of family support in those difficult days, weeks, months, and years that followed.
According to the Jan. 29, 1945 Evening Sentinel, Harold was 35 years old when drafted in March 1944. As my father often shared, his uncle was deaf in one ear and needed glasses to see clearly. My Aunt Jean Griffith, my father’s twin sister, recently shared that her parents talked often about how kind and gentle her father’s brother Harold was. Harold grew up in Carlisle and trained to be an artist, working at one point for J.C. Penney in Manhattan as a store window designer.
He eventually moved to back to Central Pennsylvania and started his own business prior to being drafted. An example of Harold’s artwork, believed to be of the actress Jean Harlow, accompanies this column. The painting hung in my grandparents’ home on Cactus Hill Road outside Carlisle for many years.
As described in the Jan. 29, 1945 Evening Sentinel article, Harold had only been in the field for about six weeks at the time of his death. The U.S. Army’s official online account of the battle states that a combination of inexperienced soldiers and troops considered “battle worn” had been stationed in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest (https://www.army.mil/botb/). Those troops found themselves on the front lines facing off against the 1st SS Panzer Division, a spearhead force of over 200,000 elite German troops and more than 1,000 tanks.
As unfortunate as Harold’s story is, he was only one of more than 75,000 U.S. casualties suffered in the Battle of the Bulge. The newspaper edition that reported Harold’s loss to Carlisle area readers was dominated by headlines about the war effort. On that very day, more than a month after Harold’s death, U.S. Troops reached the German frontier after having neutralized the final remaining pockets of enemy resistance in Belgium.
In the Carlisle area, over 6 inches of snow fell the night before, and Route 11 had dangerous conditions with 10-feet high snowdrifts near the Carlisle Airport. Conditions had much in common with those faced by Harold’s division only a month prior in Belgium.
On Veterans Day this Sunday, we are reminded of our civic duty by recognizing the many sacrifices of the men and women who answered their call to duty in service of their community and nation. We can also learn from the willing sacrifices made by every day “citizen soldiers” like my Great Uncle Harold, who dutifully put themselves in harms’ way despite age, infirmity, and significant family responsibilities at home.