Return to My Father's Battleground
Interviews by Teresa Nguyen
I was born in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to Bette and Merle Sheen. They were married in September of 1946, after Merle returned from combat in Europe, during World War II.
I have one older sister Deb, and I came along in 1956. We all moved to Janesville around 1961 and I was raised here.
I’ve been learning about my dad’s service for many years now.
My Father’s Service
My father, Merle Sheen, was one of three children. He had two sisters; Jane, who was 11 years younger, and Caryl, who is older.
He joined the military in 1940, training out in California. He had been assigning people to go off to war. He thought to himself, “That’s not fair, I should go.”
The Pacific Theater was already very active and the U.S. had broken through Normandy. Merle entered combat in World War II in 1944, just after D-Day and fought in the infantry across Europe - from France to Belgium, to the Netherlands and then to Germany.
Eventually, he worked his way up to the rank of an officer.
After a while, he joined the 30th Division on August 6th of 1944. The 119th, the 120th, and the 117th were all infantry units that made up the 30th Division, regarded in history as a top division. Merle ended up in Company K as a platoon leader. Their division had led the St. Lô, Breakout, which ultimately led to the liberation of France.
Surrounded on Hill 314
Around that time, my father’s division, nicknamed “Old Hickory”, entered the epicenter of the fighting at Mortain, France. Hitler had ordered the SS German unit to capture Mortain “at all costs”. East of town, several companies of the US battalion were surrounded on Hill 314.
The senior surviving officer, Captain Reynold C. Erichson, took charge of Hill 314 and their defense. For five days, the nearly 700 surrounded Americans beat off assaults by the German SS Division.
Cut off from any routes to and from the hill, the Americans ran severely low on ammunition, food and other supplies.
Four hundred Americans, over half on the hill, were killed or wounded. But the German offensive had been stopped with heavy casualties, in no small part thanks to the 30th Infantry Division and the heroic stand of the men on Hill 314!
By the autumn of 1944, the enemy had backed off to Belgium and Germany. The German resistance in the west was quickly crumbling as the British and American troops approached the German border. They were 233 days ahead of schedule! Merle’s Division fought their way to Aachen, along the Siegfried Line.
Then, in November of 1944, Merle was shot and injured in the thigh.
Battle of the Bulge & The Malmedy Massacre
In December of 1945, Merle was sent back to the 30th Division, right as the Battle of the Bulge began! He traveled to the town of Malmedy, Belgium, where they came under friendly fire. After a bomb hit, fire broke out and my dad lost some of his clothes and things.
The division had to then retake the Malmedy area.
Meanwhile, the German SS attacked U.S. Battery B with surprise fire. Those U.S. troops who couldn’t escape, including medical personnel, quickly surrendered.
After being searched and relieved of their possessions, the US troops were lined up by the Germans in eight rows in a field at the crossroads. Then, in an act of a serious war crime, the German Combat Group Peiper fired on the GI prisoners. German troops walked among the bodies and shot any who appeared to be alive. Survivors of the massacre recalled being fired upon several times, and even hearing laughter as the Nazi troops killed Americans.
When the Germans left, at least 84 US soldiers were dead. Just over 40 Americans survived the incident, now known as the Malmedy Massacre, either by fleeing into the woods or pretending to be dead.
Members of my father’s division were the ones who discovered the bodies in the snow.
After that horror, they continued on, crossing the Rhine River, leading the push into Germany.
Author's note: The post-war trials of the Nazi unit involved in the war crimes at the Malmedy Massacre got bogged down in years of legal complications and only a handful of the German officers received what amounts to a "slap on the wrist" for their horrendous crimes.
Merle received the Bronze Star Medal and Silver Star Medal, as well as the Purple Heart through all of his service in the war.
Reflecting on War
Merle wasn’t able to come home with the rest of the division and stayed with the occupation forces for a while into late 1945 or into ’46. After the war, he was in charge of two towns in Germany.
Reflecting on his service, my dad always said, “War solves nothing. It just kills people.” He was very against the Vietnam War and wasn’t afraid to say so. He knew what he was talking about.
After he had passed, my aunt told me that he had suffered from PTSD and would wake up screaming with nightmares. He told his sister, “I lost men in the army, and this is God punishing me for it.”
Sharyn Sheen on the 30th Division Reunions
In 1995, Dave and I attended the 50th Reunion of the 30th Division. Dave’s dad, Merle, had written all of these letters with the names of fellow soldiers in them. I tried contacting them, to see if they were still alive and found some of the guys. A few of them were going to be at this reunion!
So, we took the train to upstate New York to attend the reunion and met all these people, including his dad’s captain and another famous soldier in his company, Francis S. Currey, who won the Medal of Honor.
Currey was only 16 or 17 when he joined, but he lied about his age. Francis Currey recently passed away. He was the inspiration for the first G.I. Joe doll!
Also, at this reunion, there was a man named Robert, who took a wrong turn in his jeep and was captured at Mortain during the fighting. He was then sent to a German concentration camp. He survived and then ended up living on the grounds of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.
At the reunion, he told me, “You know, I would die happy if I could find my pallet partner, the guy I was with in the camp.”
I told him, “Maybe I could help.”
I had phone discs from all over the country, and I found his friend in 20 minutes! I called Robert up and said, “I found him.”
So, they had a chance to talk before he died. That was special.
Dave’s nephews are interested in this history. They went to one of the 30th Division reunions, too.
At that particular reunion, there were relatives of survivors of the Jews who had been trapped on a concentration camp train and were liberated by the American troops. The relatives were there to present an award to the veterans.
At one of the reunions, Captain Joe Reaser, Merle’s commanding officer in the 30th Division, 120th infantry Company K, spoke at length to Dave. He opened up to him about his experiences and surviving the war. People were surprised, because he had never opened up about it before. That was neat to witness.
The Idea of the Trip – Dave Sheen Interview Continued
My father passed away in 1976, when I was just 20.
I had an interest in history and had saved a lot of my dad’s keepsakes. He had written to my mother often and had written many letters to his parents. My Aunt Jane brought these letters to me later in life.
My dad never told my mother the details, but he would share more with his parents and tell his mom about the dangers of the war and things he experienced. Those letters gave me a lot of insight. One of them read:
“Last week, I had a very horrible job of going and finding all the bodies of the men in our company, who were still reported missing in action. In other words, the bodies that the registration men couldn’t find. It would be easy for me to find, because I knew the route we took, etc. Maybe if everybody in the U.S. knew that…”
Those were the kinds of things he would write to his mother and father, but he hid the dangers from his sweetheart, my mother.
He had also written in some of the letters that he wondered how the German people could let this go on.
Looking through those letters and reading the books about the battles, I learned a lot. I didn’t realize how courageous he really was until later in life.
He had always dreamed of going back to Europe to see these places again.
I began to think of going there. I decided to retrace my father’s footsteps and explore the historical aspects of his experiences in the war.
The Two Daves
I knew Dave Boyd from high school. He was a swimmer and I was a swimmer. He had twin brothers my age. We stayed friends all these years.
They consider me an “honorary Boyd brother”. I’m probably the only non-family member who has been to everybody’s wedding!
We had gone together to San Diego over Christmas and New Year once and we were talking about taking this trip to Europe.
Dave Boyd, said, “Yeah, let’s do that!” We started to plan. So then, I really had to research this history and where we would go.
Interview with The Reverend Dave Boyd
I was along for the ride. I love Dave Sheen! My love for him and respect for him as a public servant is very deep.
My brothers and I met Dave when we were all in our teens. When I was older, working in St. Louis coaching swimming, Dave came down to visit me and my brothers.
Over the years he had told the stories of his dad in the service and expressed interest in retracing his dad’s steps.
It sounded fun to me. I had told Dave for years, “If you ever do it, I’m in!” We were both retired and said, “Let’s do it!”
Personally, I had an interest in the history because my mother was a WWII veteran. She quit college her freshman year at UW Madison, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. She joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) military unit. It was established on July 30, 1942, as the U.S. Navy’s corps of female members. During World War II, some 100,000 WAVES served in a wide variety of capacities.
My mother ended up serving as a flight controller on the east coast. She was the first American female voice that the pilots would hear when they finished their bombing routes. She was quite a role model.
The key for our trip to Europe was that Sharyn Sheen was the organization master! We just kind of followed her direction. I wanted to help Dave have a great trip.
It was beyond my wildest hopes!
The traveling was easy, aside from getting on the wrong train once. We drove and took trains and, one of the times, they didn’t have cars for us at a rental, so Dave thought of a Plan B. He was quick to solve any little problems on the journey. Dave always drove the rental cars, and I acted as navigator.
When we went to Bastogne, France, there was the most amazing, multi-media museum, telling the story from the perspective of four different people.
We really enjoyed our time with a local family who kept a museum of their own. We spent time in their home, having dinner with them. They were so grateful for the Americans’ role in liberating France and never forgot it. They had a room with mannequins and artifacts from Mortain.
At Mortain, you could still see the land hollowed out where the fox holes had been. We took this old WWII jeep into the hilly area. On that particular hill, 314, we stood where Dave Sheen’s dad had stood. It was all very moving.
We were born shortly after the war and it was still impacting our culture and our economy when we were young.
On the trip, we would go into these little towns and we’d see a monument with a wreath on it, because they were celebrating the date that town was liberated in WWII. They have not forgotten, even to this day.
On Belgium’s Independence Day, everyone was dressed up and the military was in uniform. We visited a fort and received a private tour. That was where Dave’s father had taken the Nazi flag after the US captured the fort. We returned the flag to the Belgian people there and that was quite a remarkable experience.
We visited several American cemeteries, too. Of course, I said a few prayers in these places. It was a very spiritual experience visiting there. It impacted my prayers then and after…there’s an awful lot of gratitude. This was visceral, what people did there and the sacrifices made.
We also saw monuments for the Americans in World War I in these little towns. There’s such an appreciation there.
When we drove past the sign where the Iron Curtain was, we stopped to see it.
We also believe we stood in the place where his dad was wounded. It was all very moving.
Respect for Those Who Serve
The remarkable thing, as awful as it was, is that Merle went from all of that horror in war back to life in America, becoming a successful insurance salesman. As a pastor, I’ve done a lot of work with people with PTSD. In many ways, Merle led a normal life. But you don’t see such horror without being impacted by it.
Many of them didn’t talk much about their experience. It’s hard to relive the horrors of war. But others I’ve spoken to speak so humbly, as if it were just a job. They’d say, “It’s what we had to do.”
In my years as a pastor, I did a lot of funerals of military veterans. I would always tear up when they would fold up the flag and hand it to a surviving loved one.
Coming back from this trip, I definitely found a deeper respect for those who serve in the military now.
It was a privilege to be there with my “brother Dave”. And I give Dave credit for taking this trip. His father, Merle, had wanted to go back, but he died at a relatively young age.
I believe Dave’s call to be a public servant was influenced by his father.
Dave Sheen Interview Continued…
I had the route. My wife, Sharyn, helped plan the trip. We traveled from July 13th through the 30th in 2019. She booked the air tickets, other modes of transportation and booked the Airbnb places we’d stay.
We flew to Paris and took a train to the Normandy beach area, to the city of Caen. We visited the war cemetery by Omaha Beach. Then, we took a car to the area of Mortain.
I had been corresponding with a young woman by the name of Melina Paysant, who was working for the local visitor’s bureau.
She knew of a cemetery we might like to see, but wondered if we wanted to make the 40-minute trip. We said, “Yes!”
It was a very well-kept cemetery, absolutely gorgeous. The French people adopt a grave and care for it. They are still so thankful for what the American’s did for their country.
Melina’s family are all involved and they’re all into preserving the history. They were amazing. The parents spoke little English, but they had an old WWII era jeep, and drove us around to these historical places in that jeep. What a blast!
They knew where everything happened and where Company K, my dad’s company, was. They took us to a ridge where they were located on Hill 314. Just the thought of him being up there and the Germans trying to kill him…it was a lot to think about.
During the war, in that battle, there was a little garden with radishes, and that’s all they had to eat. My dad didn’t want to eat radishes after the war. Ever.
The French had put up an American flag and a marker on Hill 314. Our guides had found dog tags near a tree that belonged to a soldier, who didn’t have a family left. They’ve kept his grave up all these years.
Melina’s family also has their own mini-museum with artifacts found on the hill that they keep on display.
They asked me to write a note in their guest book, sort of on behalf of my father. Through most of the trip, I kept it together. But I got emotional at that moment.
Melina’s brother had a photo from the war era and we went to that same spot in the city. There is a wall and a church still in those exact locations as they were in the photo from the war.
It’s beautiful country around there. I would love to go back.
Belgium and The Netherlands
We traveled by train on to Liège, Belgium, and found another WWII American cemetery. It’s touching walking through them and seeing the hundreds and hundreds of soldiers’ graves. It helps to understand the vastness of what we lost there, just in WWII alone.
As we traveled through the Belgian countryside, stopping at several historical places.
In the Netherlands, we visited a war hospital. We saw a building in Kerkrade that had a sign of the 30th infantry division nickname, "Old Hickory", on its wall. We thought perhaps at one point there was a memorial there, or that it was a marker for something that had happened on that spot.
Just down the block, there was a memorial statue of a bronze soldier dedicated to "Old Hickory, the 30th Division".
Then, we made our way to Malmedy. We visited a cave where, during the war, all the local people hid out.
We also visited some churches. Dave Boyd is a pastor and had an interest in seeing the local churches in Europe.
There was a beautiful and moving tribute to the Malmedy Massacre with a plaque and a museum, as well.
Outside this community, was where my father earned his Silver Star Medal. As we were there, I thought of what my dad went through.
I remember my dad had sent back a Nazi flag that they captured from their takeover of a Belgian fort from the Germans. It was located on the Belgium/Germany border. The Germans used gliders to get on top of this underground fort and had used shape charges, a newer kind of weaponry designed to get into the fort.
The 120th regiment of the 30th Division were assigned to retake fort and fight off the remaining Germans holding it. We didn’t have a lot of casualties, but just one. There’s a monument to him there.
So, after the takeover, my dad decided to take their Nazi flag as a souvenir of the capture. He had wrapped it in the blueprints of the fort and mailed it to Wisconsin. Unfortunately, we no longer have those blueprints. I wish we did!
Later, I decided I didn’t really want this Nazi flag lying around my house and that, on this trip to Europe, I would return it to Belgium.
We packed it carefully, wrapping and covering it up. We didn’t want people confiscating it, using it for nefarious purposes. And we didn’t want the airport security to assume we were supporters of Nazi ideology, which we are not.
Dave Boyd and I happened to be there on Belgium’s Independence Day. We went into this fort and we got a special tour because of my connection to the place. I gave them the flag and the letters from my dad that said he was sending it home.
What they will do with it, I don’t know, but it was a piece of their history and involvement in WWII.
It is significant, physical proof of their capture of the fort.
They were all really nice to us, and that was an interesting experience.
We went off into Germany after that. In all the other areas, in France, Belgium and The Netherlands, the history was preserved and talked about. But, interestingly, the people in Germany did not want to talk about the war or share their history. It’s as if they have buried it with the past.
We drove through the country, past beautiful oat fields, to the two small towns my dad was in charge of with the mayor after the takeover. The towns probably haven’t changed much since he was there, so it was neat to see those.
We passed a sign that indicated where the Berlin Wall went through. Had we been there 25 years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to go any farther.
We went to Dusseldorf and found where my dad had crossed the Rhine River. His last battle was in Magdeburg, where they had lost their squad leader and some of their men.
Passing Along the History
My grandmother had put together some scrapbooks full of things; items from Merle’s training days, newspaper articles about the war and his division, snippets of letters from Merle, telegrams sent home and things like that. There is a telegram in this scrapbook informing his parents that Merle had been wounded in battle. We have old maps and photos from my dad’s experiences in the military that he sent back, as well.
I have thought about organizing his many letters that he wrote home, maybe in a scrapbook of sorts. Documenting makes a lot of sense in order to save this history. I hope my nephews might want to keep some of these things to keep this family history alive. It’s all here for them.
Preparing for this story had me looking through it all again, which I needed to do. That trip kind of closed a chapter for me. The history of it all, and what we learn, is important.
Final Reflections from Dave Boyd
The lessons we can learn from this is to value the freedom we have.
We need to recognize that, in an earlier time, when there was great conflict in the culture, the depression was going on and then the Great War, people really came together for a common goal.
With all the tensions going on, I think that would be a great lesson for us to learn right now.