WDVM’s Ross Simpson tells the story of John Shaffner for Veterans Voices.
(WDVM) — They are called “The Greatest Generation,” the men and women in uniform who saved the world from tyranny and domination during World War II.
One of the greatest soldiers to serve passed away in February after falling on an icy driveway at his home in Cockeysville, Maryland; severely injuring his back. But I think John Schaffner died of a broken heart.
Lillian, the love of his life, died six months earlier. They were inseparable. And danced together one last time at their 70th wedding anniversary.
Schaffner told me it was love at “first flight.” He took Lillian for a ride in his plane before war broke out in Europe and he enlisted in the Army. He wanted to fly, but wound up as a “ground pounder,” army slang for an “infantryman.”
Private First Class John Schaffner, a forward scout for his artillery battalion, had a ringside seat behind a machinegun in the snow-covered Ardennes Forest, a natural barrier between Belgium and Germany when the epic Battle of the Bulge began just before Christmas in 1944.
“Before daylight, probably about 5:30, quarter til six, artillery shells began to fall into our position,” said Schaffner, as he sat his one of two rooms downstairs that are filled with memorabilia. “Being somewhat exposed, I got into a little depression where he had the machinegun and more or less crawled into my helmet,” said Schaffner.
For the next four days, Schaffner and a couple of buddies who were ordered to cover the battalion’s retreat with a bazooka and a few anti-tank rockets were on the run.
They were almost captured by the Germans when their battalion was overrun by a superior German armored force at Parker’s Crossroads named for their commanding officer.
“The Germans surrounded C-Battery which was in an untenable position to begin with and captured pretty much everybody who was in C-Battery at the time,” said Schaffner who ducked out the back of a barn that was being shelled and hid in a herd of dairy cows as he ran toward some woods. “Had the Germans known that cows don’t have six legs,” laughed Schaffner, “I would be dead.”
After eluding capture, Schaffner finally reached friendly lines, but was shot at and missed by one of his own men when he couldn’t remember the password and counter-sign that changed daily.
“He didn’t get the message, so I gave him the message in some obscene American words which I won’t repeat,” said Schaffner, “and he let me through.”
After the war, Corporal Schaffner returned to Maryland, married Lillian, his sweetheart and raised a family.
His son honored me by asking me to speak at his father’s funeral. The son of Army Lt. Eric Wood, who was killed in the war, was also invited to speak about the “Greatest Generation.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Schaffner is one of approximately 350 veterans who die every day in America.
At the rate they are answering their final roll call, it’s estimated that the “Greatest Generation” will disappear within the next decade.
But exploits of men like John Schaffner who received the Belgian Medal of Honor and the French Legion of Merit, will live on.