For several years, I’ve had biweekly dinners with my friend Bascom Hill Biggers III. He turned 99 this past summer, but let me correct the image you may have of a doddering old man: That same week he danced a jig outside the Bureau of Motor Vehicles after renewing his driver’s license.
Raised in Atlanta, Bascom was an ROTC cadet in college before being drafted in 1943 and stationed in New York City for nearly a year while awaiting orders. A month before his 22nd birthday, he was sent to Europe where he fought on the ground in the final months of World War II.
During the spring of 1945, Bascom’s ragtag battalion, fill-ins for other battalions that’d suffered significant losses, moved through Germany, clearing remnant enemy soldiers from the enemy’s own country. Alongside Bascom was Russ Mohler, a lineman from Petaluma, California.
On a cold spring day in 1945, the battalion waited at the edge of a forest near the town of Kameritz. Between the forest and the town lay 3,000 yards of fields.
“We stand only slightly scattered in a patch of woods already littered with dead. There are so few of us left, so very few. There is a foreboding of panic within me. It is that sickening, helpless despairing feeling that comes when you know you must go on and you only want to escape — but not by death. Death is too close to be an escape.”
While each soldier had his own weapons and pack to carry, the battalion also had a Browning automatic rifle, or BAR, a 20-pound machine gun. Bascom was barely 5-foot-5 and weighed 125 pounds. “Mohler and I were a team, and he was always there to take over for me when it was my turn to carry the BAR.”
“We are told what our new C.O.’s orders are. Our new C.O. — a coward. Our real C.O., our leader, is dead. He died yesterday. And now we must take orders from a coward, a man who was too cowardly to come to the front. When someone suggests the unnecessary danger in the orders, his is only a sneering attitude. ‘It will be accomplished my way. You are just frightened. There is nothing to fear.’ Easy for him to say. What does he know of danger? He was safe. He is safe still.”
Their orders were to take Kameritz and they determined the safest route was alongside a highway leading into the town. On the other side of the highway flowed a parallel stream overgrown with bushes that could easily hide enemy soldiers.
Bascom, carrying the BAR, was ordered to go first and “spray the banks of that stream good.” He did, with Mohler close at hand. German soldiers hiding between the stream and the highway quickly showed themselves and surrendered.
The Americans advanced to capture the would-be prisoners when bullets sprayed the ranks from across the stream. A “fellow with guts” went forward and captured three more Germans.
While Bascom reloaded the BAR, Mohler helped process the new POWs. When he returned, he proudly showed Bascom the pistol he’d collected from one. Mohler had always wanted a pistol.
“Then with the shock of a train whistle blast, an enemy machine gun opens up on us. It is in the black forest far to our left and it is playing for us. …The enemy is firing the dreaded 88 at us.”
Bascom and Mohler fell to the ground. Bascom’s impulse was to jump into the stream, but he felt paralyzed. The explosions drew nearer until they were upon the battalion.
Bascom didn’t realize it at first, but his right hand had been hit. As Mohler looked at Bascom’s bloody hand, a shell hit a nearby tree stump. “It’s my right shoulder,” he cried out before his head slumped forward.
When the shelling stopped, Bascom called for a medic and worked to peel off Mohler’s equipment and clothing. Mohler turned ghastly yellow and made the noises of an animal in pain. But when Bascom exposed the shoulder, he found no wound. He frantically searched Mohler’s body for other wounds. There were none.
For several minutes Bascom anguished over staying with his dying friend or leaving to save his own life. He stayed. Not yet 25, Mohler left behind a pregnant wife and two children.
Eight months later, Bascom wrote a moving account of that fateful day in which death, always capricious, took one young man and passed by another. When I first read the original, typewritten pages, Bascom sat near me, his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands.
Over seven decades later, survivor’s guilt hangs on Bascom’s shoulders like a sodden cloak.
Two nights before Mohler died, the battalion bunkered down in an abandon warehouse. Two by two, the men shared their blankets with one another. Bascom and Mohler embraced, momentarily holding each other at the edge of uncertainty before collapsing into fitful sleep.
My dear friend embodies the gentleness of St. Francis of Assisi and can harm neither spider nor fly that takes residence in his home. It’s hard to comprehend the impact his military service had on him.
Just before Veterans Day, Bascom shared with me the conundrum of many a veteran, “I’m glad I went to war; I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”
A few days after leaving Mohler’s body behind, the spring weather was still bone-chillingly cold when the battalion set up in the garden of recently captured German leader.
“My participation was so small, infinitesimal compared to what the real heroes did —slaughtered on beaches. Yet it was a perspective. That night in the garden I thought how wonderful it was to be alive.”
A visible bit of shrapnel remains embedded in Bascom’s once-injured hand, a lifelong companion that reminds him of this essential truth.
This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 14, 2021.