by Peter J. Dahlberg
Our worlds were far apart...that is, until World War II. Bob Cromer came from the great metropolitan city of Chicago, while my roots were in a small town in the Red River Valley of North Dakota. Population 500. He was familiar with bustling city life, while I was raised in a q uiet rural area. We had some things in common though...we were both 18 years of age and far from home. Somehow we came together for basic training in the infantry at Camp Blanding, Florida in June of 1944, and ended up in the same company, where we spent 17 weeks of intensive training. Under the hot sun of summer it was quite grueling out on the white sands. This was the first time for troop training during summer months at Camp Blanding because of the extreme heat. We felt like we were being prepared for the South Pacific. Instead, Bob and I were getting ready to endure the awful cold of winter in Europe, the worst winter of a century during the fateful Battle of the Bulge.
Bob and I soon became friends. I will never forget one clear starlit night when we were assigned the duty of guarding a machine-gun range. As we walked our post around midnight we began an interesting discussion. Our thoughts focused on how the world came into being. Bob said, "You know, I'm an atheist." As we looked up at the bright heavenly display the stars seemed so close you could almost reach out and touch them. I asked, "How could all this come about without a Creator?" We discussed the subject for a while. When our shift was over we returned to settle down in our pup tents for the rest of the night. I suggested, "Bob, before you go to sleep tonight, why don't you ask God to reveal himself to you." We never had occasion to broach the subject again.
Basic training came to a close, and somehow Bob and I continued staying together , the only ones from our company to do so. We spent a few days at Ft. Meade, Maryland, before going overseas. While there we had opportunity to visit Washington, D.C. and New York City. It was a great experience for this small town boy. Then we prepared to embark from Boston harbor, December 12, 1944. As we walked up the gangplank I wondered if I would ever walk back down again. After 7 days and nights on the stormy North Atlantic we landed in Liverpool, England. We boarded a train to Southampton where we were housed in "tent city." Since reinforcements were sorely needed on the front during the Battle of the Bulge plans were made to fly us across the English Channel on Christmas Day, but the fog proved far too dense for planes to take off or land. A few days later we crossed the Channel on an LST landing boat during the night while evading German U-boats, and disembarked safely at LaHavre, France. From there we boarded 40x8 boxcars (forty men or eight horses) and headed for Rouen, France, where we were issued our MI 's and had opportunity to zero them in. Shortly before leaving for the front lines to join the 78th Infantry Division we had one last Chapel service in a barn loft where we sat on bales of hay. During the service the Chaplain invited anyone who wanted to share his faith to stand and express it. To my amazement my friend, Bob, was first on his feet. Somewhere along the way he had come to firmly believe in an Almighty God and had courage to acknowledge his faith. In days to come it proved a strong support during combat and when he was twice wounded. The first time he was disabled for a few weeks and was soon back in action. The second wound was far more serious and removed him from the scene for the remainder of the war.
While recovering in a hospital in Holland after his first injury, Bob wrote a letter home in which he said, "I've been reading my Bible a lot lately and yesterday while I was thinking about going back up to the front, just by chance I happened to open my Testament to the Book of Psalms--and for some reason, I don't know why, the numbers 91 and 18 stuck in my mind so I read the 91st and the 18th Psalm. I wish you would read them and then you shouldn't worry about me. I've changed a lot from what I was like eight months ago, a lot of it because of Peter Dahlberg--he influenced me to start taking interest in the Bible. I never had much faith in prayers before I was in the Army, but--well, I've had several of them answered... So please don't worry at all about me--and remember, whatever happens is for the best!"
The exciting moment came when we crossed the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine at the liittle village of Remagen. The bridge was under constant bombardment and we dashed across during a lull in the shelling. The following day we pressed forward to take a certain objective, when we walked into a deadly trap. Fog lay heavily over the landscape and we captured a few German prisoners along the way who warned us of impending danger just ahead. Bob was given responsibility to take them back to a secured area, so he missed the following action, which no doubt saved his life. We were ordered to spread out across the open hill and dig in, when suddenly the fog lifted. All hell broke loose! Rifle and machine gun fire raked the open area mowing down our men who had no cover. They didn't have a chance to respond; it happened far too quickly. My squad leader had motioned for me to join him in a shell hole, where we had a little protection. As I opened fire a bullet glanced off my steel helmet and careened off into space. Then, suddenly, the fog settled down again. The agonizing cries of wounded and dying men will always live on in my memory. Minutes later my squad leader was killed by the explosion of a mortar shell that knocked us both to the ground. I was only slightly wounded, so I wandered somewhat dazed back to where one of our tanks had come on the scene and helped direct their fire to the location of the German troops about a hundred yards away. Soon a long column of some 70 or 80 emerged from the woods wearing long overcoats with hands raised high above their heads. We had won a costly battle with nearly half our platoon killed. I'll never forget the scene as the bodies of our men were carried off the battlefield and laid side by side on the cold wet ground.
A day or two later, after trying to reorganize, we pressed on to take another objective. We stopped in a wooded area waiting for our tanks to take the lead so we could follow them. Suddenly we came under intense artillery shelling, with tree bursts making it impossible to find adequate cover. I watched one of our tanks take a direct hit resulting in flames leaping from the turret. This was when Bob was hit by shrapnel in one leg. It was a serious wound and was the end of action for him. He was soon carried back to a medic station, transferred to a hospital in Paris, then on to England for further care. During his recovery he began taking real interest in the medical field as he observed the care given to those who were suffering. He later wrote, "I began to think of my future. It was there that I first started to think about becoming a doctor. I wanted to make my life count as one that was worthwhile." This ultimately led to his decision to follow the medical profession. Had he not been wounded he probably would have died in further action that very day. Since our tanks could not go ahead because of enemy fire we were ordered to spread out in a skirmish line at the edge of the trees. At a given signal we made a mad dash across the open field toward the hill we were to capture. Halfway across a German 88 exploded midway in our line and every man to my right fell to the ground. Our new squad leader in the center of the line took a direct hit and some of the other men near him were also killed. Had Bob been with us he might well have been one of them. The angels watched over him once again and his life was spared.
Following his discharge from the Army Bob began his training to enter the field of medicine. He became a excellent doctor, married a beautiful young lady from the area where he had established his practice, and subsequently raised a lovely family with five children. A few years ago he was honored at a celebration for having completed 50 years of medical practice in that same community. My path led in a different direction as I began training for the ministry which has continued for almost 60 years. Part of this time I served as Chaplain at a V A Center and the SD State Veterans Home for a period of 30 years. I was privileged to be able to identify with veterans from various wars. By the way, Bob is still practicing medicine, and I'm still involved in ministry, although we both have slowed down just a bit. Last summer my wife and I had opportunity to visit Bob and his wife in their home. It was a delightful experience, to see each other again after more than 50 years. Our lives were changed and given direction during those months on the front lines in Germany.
Not long ago Bob sent me an interesting book, "Remagen 1945, Endgame Against the Third Reich." He included a note that said, "I always knew that you would make it through the war. I knew that God would protect you. From Blanding on throughout the war I admired your ability to live your religion. You never tried to force your beliefs on anyone but you lived what you believed. Your actions were more telling than words could ever have been. You had quite an effect on me." All I can say is, "Thanks, Bob, you couldn't have given me a greater tribute; your words mean more than any medals I've ever received. And thanks, too, for being a life-long friend." It's so good to see what God has done in each of our lives, that we have been given the privilege of living out our life's dreams and fulfilling His purpose for having spared us again and again on the battlefield.
Bob expressed it so well when he wrote, "The war was an experience that none of us would ever go through again, not for all the money in the world, yet on the other hand we would not trade that experience for anything." These experiences during World War II certainly played a huge part in preparation for life and for service. I will never forget the lessons I learned, most importantly I learned to pray and trust in God with all my heart. For His loving protection and care I will be forever grateful, and will give thanks, too, for the privilege of developing friendships that have continued through the years. One final quote from Bob: "My youth was snatched away from me... I went into combat and was forced to grow up overnight. Combat was terrible and I lost many friends in battle, and yet I think that ours was one of the most fortunate of all generations. We were privileged to grow up in " a time when honor, truth, loyalty, duty and patriotism were real and meant something." I totally agree, and it's still good to be alive!
We've changed a little through the years...but who hasn't?
Bob left, Peter right