Greene County paid a price for victory

As summer approaches, many of you kick it off on Memorial Day. For the soldiers of the 168th Infantry Regiment, it will be most introspective as they ponder their fallen comrades.

This year marks 77 years since America entered World War II.

History books focus on our response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In early 1942, we joined our European allies. The 168th Infantry Regiment, under the 34th Infantry Division “Red Bulls,” became the tip of the spear.

Deemed one of the readiest units for battle, they answered the call without hesitation and with their British allies executed Operation Torch — the invasion of North Africa.

After taking Algiers, the 168th moved fast to Tunisia. Split among two hills (Lessouda and Kasaira), their mission: Protect Faid Pass at all costs — a route for which the Germans were expected to use. Intelligence would contradict this and provide a much-needed diversion for the Germans.

Feb. 14, 1943. Valentine’s Day (6:30 a.m.). A blinding sandstorm gives German tank battalions under Erwin Rommel (“The Desert Fox”) dense cover to surround both hills, crush tank reinforcements and spend the next two days shooting unabated into the hills.

Out of food, water, ammo and support, the 168th suffered greatly.

Few escaped alive, many were forced to surrender or were killed. Captured soldiers were taken by plane to Italy, by rail, or marched to POW camps where they would spend the rest of the war enduring grave living conditions (over-occupancy of prisoners to a building, scarce food, heat and rampant disease).

This story became personal when a family member posted a tribute to their father, Sgt. Harry C. Harris, 168th Infantry Regiment Band, who was captured in that battle at Faid Pass.
As a screenwriter and combat veteran, I felt obligated to tell this fantastic story. After months of online research, watching newsreel archives, reading battle reports and scouring photos, I felt I had some perspective on what happened that fateful day. Sgt. Harris passed away in 1979 and left little details about his experience.

Enter Private First Class Arch Shealy.

Last Thanksgiving I was able to meet and interview 98-year-old PFC Shealy, of Ocala, Fla. It turned out he was captured the same day and location as Sgt. Harris.

I also realized our World War II heroes were dwindling. To find a World War II POW alive was a godsend. To interview Arch was definitely an unexpected checkmark on my “Bucket List.” Unfortunately, he passed in March of this year and was buried with full military honors.  

Arch Shealy (a Howitzer gunner) met the fate of many other soldiers that day.

My research and testimony from other POWs agree that captivity changes you — mentally and physically. Survival instincts take over and determine how one deals with your mind and body.

To some, it was simply a fellow POW to lean on. To other POWs, it was all about faith — faith there would be a good ending, faith in their God to care for them, faith in their family and community support, and faith in their country to return them safely home to their loved ones.

What is the price of victory? My belief is that the sacrifice our military soldiers make on a daily basis is the price. Learning from our sacrifices is the victory.

Some soldiers pay the ultimate price while some serve with honor and pass on their experience and devote their lives to ensure younger generations understand the true meaning of freedom.

I believe I speak for a majority of the military when I say we serve with the understanding that a price will be paid. Whether we (the military collective) pay the ultimate price or serve honorably is never questioned. But we understand it to be a sacrifice we make to continue the legacy for which this country and its values are based.

So on Memorial Day, I ask that we all take time out from our summer festivities and pay our “price” to honor those who fought bravely for America’s destiny and to show that we are a grateful nation.

As our fallen are remembered on this beloved day, American flags will be planted in honor, wreaths placed with care and tears of sadness will flow upon hallowed ground which we dedicate to our fallen heroes who paid the price of victory.

James “JC” Leach is a retired Air Force combat veteran in Orlando, Fla., who is writing a screenplay about the men of the 168th Infantry Regiment during World War II.
The war drama is currently titled “Kasserine.”

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