Commissioner Ward recalls family stories of bravery, heroism, and sacrifice –
By Patricia Beech –
Many Americans think of Memorial Day as the holiday that marks the unofficial beginning of summer, or the day when schools close and neighborhood swimming pools open for business.
But for many other Americans, it is a solemn day for reflecting on the brave men and women who are no longer around to enjoy a three-day weekend with their friends and families.
A long-time advocate for veterans and veterans’ causes, Adams County Commissioner Diane Ward, says she would like to see people more focused on remembering and honoring those heroes who have “sacrificed their lives to preserve our liberty”.
She says her passion for honoring those who serve springs from her relationship with her late father, Ralph Fannin and her late father-in-law, Earnel Ward. Both were veterans of World War II.
At 23 years old, Ralph Fannin was a Master Sergeant and regimental Communications Officer serving in the 318th – 80th Blue Ridge Infantry that landed on Utah Beach in July, 1944, less than two months after the Allied invasion of Western Europe on D-Day. He would spend the remainder of the war fighting on battlefields in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany.
Assigned to Patton’s Third Army, the 80th Division proved the veracity of their motto, “The 80th Only Moves Forward”, by dashing headlong across France and engaging the German lines in heavy fighting that continued until the following spring.
According to Wikipedia, when the Germans launched their winter offensive in the Ardennes, the 80th was moved northward to Luxembourg and was hurled against the Germans, fighting at Luxembourg and Bastogne. By Christmas Day, men of the 80th were side-by-side with the tanks of the 4th Armored Division, battering forward through murderous opposition to help the 101st Airborne Division besieged in Bastogne. Over frozen, snow-covered terrain, the attack gained nine bitter miles despite constant machine gun and mortar fire. The next day, the gap between the rescuers and the besieged was narrowed to 4000 yards. On Dec. 28, the 80th broke through, bringing relief to the 101st before driving the enemy back. On Feb. 7, 1945, the division stormed across the Our and Sauer Rivers at Wallendorf and broke through the Siegfried Line, pursuing the fleeing enemy to the Rhine River.
It has been alleged that the last shot fired on the western front was in Czechoslovakia by the 80th, the last of General Patton’s divisions still in action.
Fannin also fought in the 10-day long battle at the Moselle River in France where the Third Army defeated German Forces defending the river’s crossings.
Fannin’s 318th Infantry had a difficult fight through woodlands as they tried to seize the high ground. After a two-day battle, they managed to dislodge the German defenders and capture the hill, but were later thrown back by a German counter-attack.
According to Ward, the Moselle River campaign had a deep and lasting impact on her father.
“He would wake my Mom up in the middle of the night pecking out Morse code messages in his sleep on the headboard of the bed,” she says. “Dad wasn’t able to talk about the horrific experiences he’d been through until much later in life.”
By February the Battle of the Bulge was over and Fannin’s Division, along with the rest of the Allies were back on the on the offensive, with the 80th breaking through the defensive barricades of the Siegfried Line and crossing the Rhine at the end of March.
By the end of the war, May 7, 1945, the 80th Division had seen 277 days of combat. It had captured 212,295 enemy soldiers. The 80th returned home to the United States in Jan. 1946 after helping to restore and keep peace in Europe.
The 80th Division had been one of Patton’s most reliable fighting forces, but it cost them dearly. During their 277 days of combat, the 80th Infantry Division had 17,087 casualties.
In the final push to defeat the Axis powers of Germany and Italy, the U.S. and other leading Allied powers planned to invade Italy. Beyond their goal of defeating Mussolini’s Italian forces, the Allies wanted to draw German troops away from their main advance through northern Europe to Berlin, Germany.
Commissioner Ward’s father-in-law, Earnel Ward, was only 19 years old when he joined the Army’s 86th Mountain Division. He would spend the war fighting, first the Italians, then the Germans, across Italy’s treacherous mountain ranges, including several trips up one mountain where a group of Germans had taken refuge in a cave.
After scaling the mountain, Ward and his fellow soldiers had stationed themselves above the cave opening. They were hoping to flush the Germans out, but a fellow soldier from Texas suddenly bellowed, “Remember the Alamo”. The Germans, uncertain what was going on, ran out only to find themselves surrounded by Allied soldiers.
Ward also fought in the Battle for Monte Belvedere which called for capturing nearby Riva Ridge, a three-and-half mile range consisting of several high mountains. The east side of the ridge was rugged, rising well over 1500 feet almost straight up from the valley floor, while the western side formed a long, passable slope. The 86th Regiment was assigned to attack Riva Ridge from the east by first scaling the dangerous mountain at night, something the Germans would not be expecting.
The Allied attack began Feb. 19, at 11 p.m. above the village of Iola which was defended by German soldiers and artillery of the German 232nd Division.
According to the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the 10th Mountain Division Descendants, the “first and second battalions of the 87th began their ascent on the western side of Belvedere towards their objective – Valpiana Ridge. The 3rd Battalion of the 85th would attack the crest of Belvedere. The 1st Batallion of the 85th, along with the second and third battalions of the 86th would make their assault on Monte Gorgolesco, just to Belvedere’s east. The 126th Engineer Battalion had the dangerous and dreaded task of clearing mines and the 751st tank battalion was to be in support.
However, unlike Riva Ridge, the element of surprise was gone. The Germans fortified their defenses by laying mines and trip wires, in addition to raining gun and mortar fire on the 10th.
When in the heat of battle the regiment’s radio failed to function, PFC Ward made his way through heavy artillery fire to a rear area where he obtained radio before making his way back to the front. But Ward, after suffering a broken ankle, would miss his division’s final victory on the mountain.
After five days of intense combat, the Germans abandoned Belvedere and the peaks from Riva Ridge to Monte Castillo were controlled by the 10th Mountain Division and the Allies.
In the following hours, the 86th engaged in violent and prolonged house-to-house combat to free the village of Iola and its 700 citizens from the iron grip of its Nazi defenders.
Two hundred and three soldiers lost their lives in the battle, 686 were wounded, and 12 were reported missing. The Germans experienced even more casualties and 400 were taken prisoner.
The 86th won high praise from U.S. Army command for dislodging the Germans from Mount Belvedere – a feat no other Allied unit had been able to accomplish.
“It’s so important that we remember the sacrifices men like my father and Earnel made in the war,” Commissioner Ward said. “If it weren’t for their willingness to sacrifice themselves, our world would look very different than it does today.”