“Your grandfather would have a fit if he knew you were going to Germany,” my grandmother told me. “He hated the Germans.”
It was the summer of 1989 and I had just completed my senior year of college. I was about to depart alone on my grand adventure to Europe, with visits planned to France, England, Ireland and Scotland. But it was my intention to tour Germany that generated the comments from my grandmother.
“He was shot by a German soldier over there in the war,” she continued.
Undergraduate study of history had sparked my interest in genealogy and I knew that both sets of my grandparents had married in the early 1940’s and spent the first years of their marriages dealing with the strains of World War II. Each of my grandfathers enlisted in wartime military service, but only my paternal grandfather saw combat action.
My father’s parents, William Woosley and Clarine Arnold, both natives of Kentucky, had married there in Bourbon County on 26 July 1941. William was born on 21 October 1920 in Estill County, the oldest child of parents whose families had lived in the Appalachian foothills near the Kentucky River and its tributaries for generations. Clarine was almost eighteen months younger, born on 9 April 1922 in Montgomery County, one of nine children in a farm family whose roots were just as deep in the Licking River watershed of Kentucky.
Bourbon County, on the eve of the United State’s entry into the war, was predominantly an agricultural community with a population of about 18,000 people. It was a major tobacco producing county, and much of its gently rolling hills and pastures were home to thoroughbred horse farms. It’s county seat, Paris, was situated on Stoner Creek, in the Bluegrass region of Central Kentucky, at the junction of federal highways and along a railroad that transported commerce and passengers. It was there that my grandparents married and began a family.
The young couple were parents of a five months old son, their first child, when my grandfather enlisted in the army on 13 October 1942. At the time, William was working as a farm hand. He entered into active military service two weeks later in Cincinnati, Ohio, about seventy-five miles from his home and family.
William’s military service extended nearly three years until his honorable discharge at Thayer General Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee on 22 September 1945. In the span of those years, my grandfather and the men of his combat unit trained together stateside and then for two months in England and Wales before joining the battle in Northern France in June 1944. Across battlefields in France, Luxembourg, Germany and Belgium he fought as an infantryman before being shot during the “Battle of the Bulge” in the Ardennes Forest.
My grandfather survived his military experience but rarely spoke of it for the rest of his life. He died on 30 September 1976, when I was nine years old. William’s life ended too early for me to understand and appreciate his military service. Known to me as “Papaw Woosley,” and seemingly just “Bill” to everyone else, he was a hero, a decorated soldier in the army division remembered as the “Thunderbolt.” He also was a man, however, who returned from war deeply affected by the violence and destruction he experienced in combat.
It was in June twenty-five years ago that I departed from my own native Kentucky to travel in Europe. Like my grandfather prior to the war, I had never been far from the state of my birth. My travels took me the hedgerows of Normandy, where William Woosley fought for his life and country. I experienced indescribable emotion as I stood on the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel, thinking that my grandfather was almost the same age when he waited there offshore on a naval vessel, staring at France and the war ahead of him.
Seventy years after the Allied invasion of France to expel Adolf Hitler’s German soldiers, I am still drawn to the story of my grandfather’s participation in the war and his contribution to the liberation of Europe. Over the next fifteen months, I will explore that story and attempt to connect him to the recorded history of his military unit’s training and service in the war. I will seek more fully to understand the context of my grandmother’s comments and to appreciate the service of my grandfather, and the sacrifices of his family.