Around the Nation
5:41 am
Mon May 26, 2014

World War II Vets Honor Their Own In Cactus Division

Originally published on Mon May 26, 2014 3:04 pm

When Kansas native Torrence Riggs was only 24, his Army division, the 103rd infantry, entered southwest Germany.

"I seen a lot of soldier boys with grim faces, I'll tell you that," he says. "I had one, too."

It was 1945, and the people in Germany's Dachau concentration camp had either been worked or starved to death.

"Terrible. They were are all just white as can be, and they wore outfits that looked like pajama outfits," Riggs says. "We didn't see how they could walk. They come out, they look like walking skeletons. ... The people that lived there, they brought them in, and had them carrying their dead."

On Monday, 92-year-old Riggs and other members of the World War II unit that helped liberate the concentration camp will honor their fallen members in Gainesville, Texas. The unit was known as the Cactus Division because so many members were from the American Southwest.

James E. White has helped to organize past annual meetings with Army buddies. He's hoping the public will remember why Memorial Day is important.

"Remember it for what it means, not that it's a holiday," White says. "I can remember my Dad, he was mad as you know what when they changed it from May the 30th, which was any day of the week, and set it up for Monday, as a three-day holiday, which diminished the meaning of the holiday."

White was wounded, but considers himself lucky.

"I say it's the best thing that happened to me. They look at me like I was crazy," he says. "But a couple of days later, 90 men in my company were taken prisoner. If I'd been taken prisoner, I probably wouldn't be here today."

At a gathering on Sunday, the vets and visitors had K-rations for lunch — the Army meal-in-a-bag that was introduced during World War II. Ammie Rogers and Gregg Rogers, children of a veteran from Boston, were trying to help guests figure out the meal, hoping to re-create a "legitimate war experience."

The soldiers and their families danced and shared stories about foxholes and Germans, but there were a lot of tears, too.

"I shouldn't be like this," James Mulligan says. "I really don't have a good reason for it. I just get too emotional that's all."

Mulligan was 18 when he joined the Army. He can't forget the friends he left behind. He still takes pills to sleep. In his unit, 834 soldiers died or went missing.

Lucas Martin traveled here from Delaware. He says he wants his grandchildren — and their children — to know how civilization was saved.

"Because Hitler had plans to dominate the world, he really did," Martin says. "And we helped stop him."

A monument to honor the Cactus Division now stands just north of Gainesville, close to the Texas-Oklahoma border.

Copyright 2014 KERA Unlimited. To see more, visit http://www.kera.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That's NPR's Emily Harris. She is in Jerusalem, which Pope Francis has been visiting today. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On this Memorial Day, let's spend some time with veterans from the 103rd Infantry. In World War II, it came to be known as the Cactus Division because so many of the men came from the American Southwest. And that is where they are gathering again today, in Gainesville, Texas. Doualy Xaykaothao, of member station KERA in Dallas, met up with these aging veterans, who as young men helped defeat the German army and in the process liberated the Dachau concentration camp.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO, BYLINE: When Kansas-native Torrence Riggs was only 24, his division, the 103rd, entered Southwest Germany.

TORRENCE RIGGS: I seen a lot of soldier boys that - with grim faces. I'll tell you that. I had one, too.

XAYKAOTHAO: It was 1945, and the people in the concentration camp, he says, had either been worked or starved to death.

RIGGS: Terrible. They were all just white as can be. And they wore outfits that looked like pajama outfits. We didn't see how they could walk. They'd come out. They'd look like walking skeletons. And they was - they brought the people that live there - they brought them in and had them carrying their dead.

XAYKAOTHAO: Riggs, now 92, says he doesn't know who's going to be alive for the next reunion.

FRANK LAWRENCE: Frank Lawrence, 28th field artillery.

JAMES WHITE: 409.

LAWRENCE: 409. No, I worked with 411 mostly.

WHITE: Did you know Miller?

XAYKAOTHAO: James E. White has helped organize past annual meetings with Army buddies. He's hoping the public will remember why Memorial Day is important.

WHITE: Remember it for what it means and not that it's a holiday. And I can remember my dad. He was mad as you know what when they changed it from May the 30, which was any day of the week, and set it up on Monday as a three-day holiday, which diminished the meaning of the holiday.

XAYKAOTHAO: He was wounded but considers himself lucky.

WHITE: I said, yeah, it's the best thing that ever happened to me. People look at me as if I'm crazy. But a couple of days later, 90 men in my company were taken prisoner. If I'd a been taken prisoner, I probably wouldn't be here today.

XAYKAOTHAO: At Sunday's gathering, the vets and visitors had K-rations for lunch. This is the Army meal in a bag that was introduced during World War II. Ammie Rogers and Gregg Rogers, children of a veteran from Boston, were trying to help guests figure out the meal.

GREGG ROGERS: I want this to be a legitimate war experience.

AMMIE ROGERS: Well, we could go outside underneath a tree or dig a hole.

G. ROGERS: It'd be helpful if someone had a gun. They could shoot it.

XAYKAOTHAO: They danced, shared stories about foxholes and Germans, but there were a lot of tears, too.

JAMES MULLIGAN: I shouldn't be like this. I really don't have a good reason for it, but I just get too emotional that's all.

XAYKAOTHAO: James Mulligan was just 18 when he joined the Army. He can't forget the friends he left behind. He still takes pills at night to sleep. In his unit, 834 soldiers died or went missing. Lucas Martin, who traveled here from Delaware, says he wants his grandchildren and their children to know how civilization was saved.

LUCAS MARTIN: Because Hitler had plans to dominate the world. He really did. And we helped stop him.

XAYKAOTHAO: A monument to honor the Cactus Division now stands just north of here, close to the Texas-Oklahoma border. For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Gainesville, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program