- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Nearly 70 years ago, Gordon Russ died fighting for his country and was buried in a foreign field.

The St. Paul man left behind a wife, two little daughters, his parents and sisters. But in the seven decades since Russ fell during a critical and bloody battle in World War II, none of them have been to his grave.

“I would have liked to have my dad’s body back here, to go visit him,” said Russ’ daughter, Judith Doyle, now 75. “I wish I could get out and see his grave. If I could just walk up and touch the stone it would be like touching him, which I don’t remember doing.”

“He’s buried in a cemetery in Luxembourg. None of us have ever been there. That’s the sad part,” said Russ’ sister, Jean Snell, 86, of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. “I wish we could’ve gone, that someone could’ve gone.”

Over the years, Doyle, of North St. Paul, has tried to find out more about the father she never knew, how he died and why he never came home. The St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1ws0kc5 ) tried to answer some of those questions.

One of the few documents Doyle has about her father is a brief newspaper clipping about his death on Jan. 8, 1945.

The 30-year-old private had been in the Army for less than a year. He had lived in the 1400 block of Ames Avenue on St. Paul’s East Side. He worked as a bartender in a place called Fleischmann & Muggley’s Tavern at University and Lexington Avenue.

Then he was drafted, was turned into an infantryman and got caught up in the costliest battle for American forces in World War II.

What would later be called the Battle of the Bulge began Dec. 16, 1944, when German forces launched a major attack against American lines in the Ardennes forest. It was Adolf Hitler’s last-ditch attempt to turn the tide of the war in Western Europe.

At the time, Russ was in Company L, 3rd Battalion, 346th Regiment, 87th Infantry Division. Few men from Russ’ unit are alive today.

An exception is James Ogden, 90, who lives near Washington, D.C.

Ogden didn’t know Russ, but he joined Russ’ company as a replacement in March 1945, after Russ had died. But Ogden made it his mission after he retired as a teacher and school administrator to document the fate of all 42 men from Company L who were killed in the war. He spent years combing through government documents and writing to families of fellow soldiers.

“I don’t know why. I just felt I needed to,” Ogden said. “I had come back from service remembering my squad leader who had been killed next to me on April 12, 1945.”

Ogden said Russ was shipped overseas with the 87th Division in October 1944 and would have seen combat in the Saar region of France in December 1944.

When the Battle of the Bulge began, Russ’ division was part of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army that hurried north into Belgium to counterattack the German advance.

Memoirs of the operation described diarrhea-plagued GIs being rushed to the front on open trucks on Christmas Eve during one of the coldest winters ever experienced in Western Europe.

“The men in Belgium, I’m told, really suffered,” Ogden said.

Howell Moore, of New Albany, Indiana, who was in Russ’ company, remembers the struggle to keep warm and dry while living in foxholes in knee-deep snow.

On Jan. 6 and 7, 1945, two companies of the 3rd Battalion attacked the tiny Belgian village of Tillet, which was held by German soldiers. The village was near a small town called Bastogne, the scene of a dramatic siege of American forces holding a critical crossroads in the battle.

“Tillet was on a road which the Germans used to funnel supplies to German units in Bastogne,” according to Ogden.

At 3 a.m. on Jan. 8, Russ’ company was ordered into action at Tillet.

“As they neared the northern outskirts of the town, they came under attack by the German defenders. A rather intense fire-fight ensued,” according to Ogden.

Moore, who was wounded at Tillet, said there was hand-to-hand and door-to-door combat in the struggle to take the town. Memoirs of the action recall a grim fight involving machine guns, hand grenades and bazookas.

“They called it the bloody crossroads,” Moore said.

Russ’ company had to withdraw under fire, according to Ogden, with three men wounded, four captured and four killed in action. One of them was Gordon Russ.

“Two roads meet in Tillet, that’s it,” said Peter Schrijvers, a Belgian historian who recently wrote “Those Who Hold Bastogne,” a history of the battle. “A small, tiny, insignificant place.”

But in the dense Ardennes forest, every road was of critical importance, which accounted for the viciousness of the fight for Tillet.

To liberate a village of a couple of hundred people, American soldiers would receive dozens of Bronze Stars, several Silver Stars, one Distinguished Service Cross and one Medal of Honor, Schrijvers said.

Russ’ youngest daughter, Susan Christianson, said she was only 3 at the time, but she remembers when her mother read the telegram informing the family of Russ’ death.

“I understood every word she was saying,” Christianson said. “I started bawling my head off because I understood what she meant.”

Judith Doyle said that after the war, a veteran who had been there told her mother that Russ had been shot in the head.

“To die when the war was practically over, it doesn’t make sense. But war never does, does it?” said Jean Snell.

Scott Desjardins, superintendent of the Luxembourg American Cemetery, said men killed in combat in World War II in Europe might be buried and reburied up to five times before coming to a permanent resting place.

At first, Russ probably was hastily buried near the front by his unit in a body bag or perhaps just wrapped in an Army blanket, Desjardins said.

“He’s probably buried with six, a dozen, 20 other soldiers,” said Desjardins, who spent 23 years in the Army.

But with the Battle of the Bulge still raging, the U.S. Army sought a place to handle up to 30,000 bodies. Just east of the city of Luxembourg, officials in the town of Hamm offered the Americans 52 acres on the top of a hill.

Russ was reburied there among about 22,000 other American soldiers. Later, the site became the Luxembourg American Cemetery, one of about a dozen permanent American military cemeteries scattered across Western Europe after World War II.

After the war, the Army gave families the opportunity to bring the remains of loved ones back to the United States, and most families opted for that.

Susan Christianson said she asked her mother many times why her father’s body wasn’t brought back, but she never seemed to get a clear answer from her.

“My mother didn’t tell me anything about my dad until I got older,” Judith Doyle said.

Schrijvers, who also has written a book about a World War II U.S. military cemetery in the Netherlands, said the soldiers who were left buried in Europe tended to be married men with young children.

The decision to repatriate the remains had to be made by 1948, but by that time many young widows had moved on with their lives and didn’t want to reopen the grieving process, Schrijvers said.

“I felt bad for Grandma and Grandpa when they were alive and couldn’t go to his grave,” Judith Doyle said. Her mother died five years ago.

But Russ is far from forgotten where he is.

The recipient of a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, Russ lies in a bronze coffin in plot I, row 12, grave 22, under one of 5,076 gleaming white marble crosses or Stars of David surrounded by a forest of oak and evergreens.

There are 105 other Minnesotan soldiers buried in Luxembourg, including several Silver Star recipients. One woman is buried here, an Army nurse. So is George Patton, who wanted to be buried with his men after his death in December 1945.

The cemetery recently underwent a 3 million Euro renovation. There’s a chapel 20 meters high, beds of roses and rhododendrons, fountains and precisely mown grass that is cut by hand in the last few inches around each grave marker, Desjardins said.

There are ceremonies every Veterans Day and every Dec. 16, the anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. On Memorial Day, a local organization, the U.S. Veterans Friends Luxembourg, places a red rose on every grave marker.

“We have a lot of ceremonies here,” Desjardins said.

Deeded in perpetuity to America and maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, the cemetery had 87,000 visitors in 2013. This year, 93,000 came.

“Every foreigner who visits here leaves with more respect for America, and every American who comes here leaves prouder to be American,” Desjardins said.

Schrijvers said that 70 years after the war, it may be a better fate for Russ to be in Luxembourg than in a private cemetery in the United States.

As long as the U.S. government stays in business, taps will be played at 4:45 p.m. every day for Russ and his fellow soldiers under their precise rows of graves.

“It’s immaculate. The quiet, the silence, the peace,” Schrijvers said. “Their memories are more visible. They’re part of something bigger.”

“I feel he’s really at peace there,” Doyle said after seeing pictures of the cemetery and her father’s grave. “He’s where he should be with the rest of the soldiers.”

___

Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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