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Mia Greco

HILL 183
HE WANTED US TO FIND THE SPOT WHERE HE LAY DEAD AN ENTIRE YEAR.


This is not just a story about a soldier who lost his life on a battlefield in World War II, but a long journey of discovery. This soldier named Michael fully expected to come home victorious, with a German helmet. So states a short V-E mail to his parents not long before his death.

A member of General Patton's 5th Diamond Division, 11th Infantry, 2nd Battalion, Company F, he is reported missing on February 9, 1945.

After crossing the flooded Sauer River with his platoon, he is last seen 200 yards from the riverbank, advancing up Hill 183 into the Siegfried Line in Germany. His parents are devastated.

In life, I his sister-in-law, never knew him, and at the time of the above revelation, I live about 150 miles north in the southern part of Holland where the people patiently wait to be liberated from German occupation.

Michael's only sibling Joe, whom I would chance to meet several months later, was a sergeant in the U. S. Air Force, and was stationed in the north of France. The brothers had not seen each other for almost three years and were looking forward to a rendezvous in Paris on Christmas Day, 1944, a meeting arranged by the American Red Cross. Joe waited there in vain…

Hitler had launched his totally unexpected counterattack in the Ardennes nine days before Christmas, which resulted in what we now know as "The Battle of the Bulge." Advancing from the Eifel Flats in Germany came Generals Manteuffel, Model, and Brandenburger, each with their respective army, while General Dietrich attacked in the northern part of Belgium with the feared SS Panzer unit, causing confusion and shock among the unsuspecting American troops waiting to celebrate a Christmas that never came.

General George Patton sends a prayer to heaven for a return of clear weather so the U. S. Air Force can aid the battle from the sky. A copy is distributed among the troops.

It is touch and go for a while. Skies clear, and the tide turns in favor of the Allies.

At this time, Michael, who is with his unit in Luxembourg, is slightly wounded at Haller on December 26,1944. A telegram informs his parents, while in a letter home, he does not mention it but writes, "Where I am now it is beautiful, and I am eating plenty of pancakes." This cryptic message denotes that he is recuperating, hoping to put them at ease. Of the supposed meeting in Paris he writes, "I was hoping to meet Joe last month, but I could not make it."

My own life in the Netherlands changes in the fall of 1946 when I emigrate from Holland to the United States to be married to Michael's brother Joe. No further news has come from the Army as to the fate of Michael, however the missing status is now "presumed dead" because twelve months have elapsed.

Three years later in 1949, the family receives a finding of death and a subsequent identification report. The remains had been buried as an unknown, in a temporary plot in Belgium, and unearthed later when they were identified successfully. An American Legion card in his pocket bearing his name and hometown, plus a favorable comparison with the army dental records, established his identity. The report further states that the remains were recovered in the vicinity of the Echternacherbrucke in Germany, but no date of recovery was given.

The parents choose to have the remains sent home for burial in the family plot with the military honors accorded him. But for the grandchildren, he is still a stranger.

The years go by, and the parents pass on.

In the attic of their home, we find two large boxes filled with letters from the sons. Eventually, I read every one of them, from Camps Fort Eustis and Pickett in Virginia, Camp Edwards in Massachusetts and Fort Meade in Maryland. Once overseas, Michael pleads with his parents not to worry if he cannot write every day. At times, he inquires about his cat Boots, his dog Skippy, and the chickens. Never does he write about hardship, stress, or longing for home. But in one letter a silent sigh can be detected in the sentence, "When I am home again I'll rest a whole month."

Michael slowly becomes real to me to the point where I am inspired to organize the story of his life in an album; the photos of childhood, teen years with varsity football in high school, his interest in tinkering with motors made known when I find a note pad for needed parts; graduation next, with subsequent draft into the service in 1943.

Time goes on and the family, which now besides nephews also includes our grandchildren, gathers for a memorial service on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. The hope is to make known, in some measure, an uncle they had never seen.

The album has now expanded to include his tour of duty. In the book, "Third Division History," sent to us shortly after the war, it is easy to follow his outfit through the battles in France, and comparing by date this information with his letters found in the attic-'He would like more mail and cookies and chocolate. No more shaving cream please!!'

As more time passes, the album generates enough interest for some of our family to make a trip to the area in Luxembourg where the remains were found. We place a rose from the garden of his ancestral home on one of the hills in the Echternacher area near a smashed pillbox. Not just for him, but for all young sons who's blood has drenched those grounds.

Our oldest son visits the cemetery where the remains had been buried as an unknown for three years. There the American official in charge supplies us with an address in the United States where we can obtain details about the circumstances of his death.

A thick folder arrives a few months later with Michael's "Individual Deceased Personnel" File. This sets in motion an unveiling of facts never before known to the family.

When Michael had crossed the Sauer River in an assault boat, and was advancing up Hill 183 in February 1945, he died of a head wound, so states the report. Because of heavy small arms fire they could not immediately look for him. While at the end of hostilities in that sector, he could not be located. Further revelation in that file tells us that the remains were found above ground one year later by a young German civilian, who notified the American authorities.

We found this painful to read, but were glad that his Mom and Dad were spared this knowledge.

At this stage of the story we wanted to know more, and decided to contact the German civilian, who's name and address was listed in the file, and who must by now by a senior citizen. The letter we sent was returned to us stamped "MOVED" with no forwarding address. We had hoped that this person could have furnished details about the exact spot where he lay for so long, seemingly forgotten. With that disappointment, all that remained was to make closure.

Apparently that is not what Michael wanted…

It is now Summer 2003, a pleasant balmy evening on the patio. The telephone rings with a person on the other end of the line telling me he is looking for relatives of Michael Greco of Glenside Pennsylvania. When he heard we were his family, he becomes quite emotional, because he had lived already five decades hoping to someday find them.

In the fall of 1945 in New Cumberland, upon his discharge, he tried to locate the parents, as Michael told him he lived near Philadelphia. At the Inquirer Newspaper, no one could help him, and being a stranger in town, "I was anxious to go home to my folks in New Orleans." I would so much have liked to talk to the parents and tell them, "Michael did not suffer long after he was hit by that sniper up on the hill in the woods. I was with him, but had to move on. An older soldier was kneeling by him to comfort him, but I could see there was no hope because the blood was spurting out with each heartbeat. I was terrified and had to leave him and move on."

I listened with disbelief, and asked how after all these years, he had managed to find us. At this point, the story becomes mysteriously incredible.

He tells us that a lady from a suburb of Reading, Pennsylvania contacted him. This woman's uncle was also of the 11th Infantry, 2nd Battalion, Company F. This uncle was declared missing in action the same day as Michael, but to date, no one knows the fate of this uncle.

This young woman started to surf the Internet about twelve months ago, and contacted every veteran or his family of that branch of the 11th Infantry. Even the local high school history class got involved, when one of the students hit on the name Michael Greco of Glenside Pennsylvania. She sent to the army for more information, and received a report with an MIA (missing in action) status for the uncle, and a KIA (killed in action) status for Michael, all on the same date and the same page.

We were still skeptical, and ended the conversation with the man in New Orleans, and said we would get back to him. Two days later, a letter from the lady near Reading arrived and she mentions in it the name of the uncle. This lifted our suspicion, as in Michael's personnel file, sent by the army; the missing man's name is also mentioned.

This was enough proof.

We called and invited her to our home, where we spent an entire Sunday afternoon, poring over the thick file of information she had garnered, including maps and coordinates with military code numbers of the many hills in the Siegfried Line. Not only does she have all this data, she is also in touch with civilians and historians in Belgium and Luxembourg who have already aided many veterans or their families, American and German alike.

We did make more contact with the veteran in New Orleans, who gave us more details of Michael as a solder. "He was a special marksman, who toted a B.A.R. rifle, and I carried his ammunition. Never heard him curse, but he said his prayers daily… At times we talked about after the war. We would both have a little house with a white picket fence…"

October 2003, Weilerbach, Luxembourg. We stand at the bank of the River Sauer. Before us stands the 5th Division Memorial Stone of the crossings on February 7-9, 1945. A small peaceful stream now, but our guides show us how high the river had risen that snowy winter of '44-'45.

We look across to the steep hills of the Siegfried line in Germany, now clothed in fall colors. Each foxhole and pillbox has been documented and occasionally, a land mine is still found.

The 5th Division Battle Book describes it well, and I quote: "It was a known fact beforehand that the mission would be a difficult one for the crossings were to be made into powerful Siegfried defenses, which at this point occupied commanding positions on high ground east of the river and were known to be protected by elaborate minefields."

We walk across a footbridge in hushed silence, and contemplate at the foot of Hill 183. This is what Michael wanted for us, his family; to find the place where he lost his young life, and know that we are proud of him, without that German helmet.

This story is our closure. We'll carry him in our hearts forever.

Maria (Mia) Greco