Wisconsin man retraces father's WWII footsteps in Europe

Exchange-Following Father's Battlefields
Posted at 1:12 AM, Oct 06, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-06 02:12:01-04

JANESVILLE — Dave Sheen wore out his father's World War II field jacket during junior high.

But like so many in the baby boomer generation, Dave seldom heard his father, Merle, talk about the war.

He remembers Merle saying that wars don't solve anything. They just kill people.

And he remembers hearing his father tell his mother that he wanted to return to France, Belgium and the Netherlands someday to see the countries "when they weren't all torn up."

Merle never got the chance.

The Janesville insurance adjuster died in 1976, before Dave ever asked him about his wartime experiences.

But Dave was lucky.

His father, who earned the Silver and Bronze stars and Purple Heart, survived some of Europe's most horrific fighting, and the Army kept a paper trail of his push into Germany with the famed 30th Infantry Division, The Janesville Gazette reported.

Known as Old Hickory, the 30th Division was regarded as the cream of the crop among U.S. fighting units.

The 30th fought at Normandy, along the Siegfried line at the Battle of the Bulge and in the final operations inside Germany.

Dave also has dozens of historical letters written by his father during the war to his father's mom and to the woman who later married Merle.

Merle's wife, Bette M. Sheen Shaw of Janesville, died this past Mother's Day.

Curiosity driven

Dave began researching his father's division while he worked as a firefighter with the Janesville Fire Department.

In 1995, he and his wife, Sharyn, attended a 50th reunion of the division.

Merle kept letters from some of his Army buddies.

"We connected with them on Merle's behalf," Sharyn said. "We corresponded with them until they died."

In 2010, Dave and his nephews went to a 65th reunion, attended by only a couple of dozen of the division's surviving men.

"They suggested to me that I should go back and see where Dad was during the war," Dave said.

Some of the men also opened up to Dave and shared war stories long stored in silence.

"The artifacts are one thing," Sharyn said. "But having firsthand stories put more flesh on the experience."

Earlier this year, Dave, who is now retired, decided: "Let's do this."

He and a longtime friend traveled to Europe in July and retraced Merle's footsteps 75 years after Merle fought in the war.

"I did not go with the goal to be closer to my father," Dave said.

But he returned home with a heightened awareness of the history his father made.

"History comes alive to all of us," Sharyn said, "if we have something to hang our hat on."

Sharyn, who has been a genealogist for decades, did not go with her husband.

"I thought of this as a male-buddy trip," Sharyn said. "I was thrilled he was able to share this with one of his really good friends."

Heavy fighting

Merle was the kind of guy who did not expect special treatment.

During the war, he served stateside but requested to go to the front lines.

"He didn't think it was fair for him to be at home," Dave explained.

Merle was assigned as a replacement officer with Company K of the 120th regiment. He joined the 30th Division on Aug. 6, 1944, with no time for reflection.

The next day, 22-year-old Merle and his men, many only in their teens, dug in around the summit of Hill 314 at Mortain, France, as the 2nd SS Panzer Division attacked their coveted position.

Cut off from the rest of the 30th Division, they held their ground until Allied reinforcements drove back the Germans on Aug. 12.

Later, Merle went on to liberate Fort Eben-Emael on the Belgian-Dutch border, where he confiscated a Nazi flag and sent it to his sweetheart back home. When he took a bullet in his leg, Merle recovered at an aid station in Paris.

Soon, he was back in action to take part in the Battle of the Bulge.

Eventually, the 30th Division — often called the Workhorse of the Western Front —led the way across the Rhine River into Germany.

History held dear

At Mortain, Dave was overwhelmed by the hospitality of the Michel and Isabelle Paysant family, who showed him the hallowed ground of Hill 314.

Three generations of French people have cared for the site where so many lost their lives.

"People are so invested in the history of the region that they instill it in their children," Sharyn said.

Dave discovered that many, including the Paysant family, have small museums in their homes, honoring the Allied forces who freed their country and filled with artifacts found in the region.

"If the trip had stopped at Mortain, I would have been happy," Dave said, "because of the knowledge and hospitality of the people there."

At Fort Eben-Emael, Dave returned the Nazi flag sent home during the war by his father. He presented it to administrator Tom Hendrikx of the museum there.

"It was fun to be able to give them something back," Dave said.

He traveled on, spending time in the small towns of Germany, where he envisioned his father traveling by jeep.

Dave continues to digest what he saw and learned during the trip. He said the research he did before leaving and after returning home was "just as much fun."

"I can put perspective to it now when rereading Dad's letters and the history books," he said.

Dave also has a better sense of the price of war in human lives.

He visited several Allied cemeteries maintained by the French people.

"Everyone has heard of the American cemetery at Omaha Beach," Dave said. "But there are many others immaculately kept."

The cemeteries are solemn places.

"It is touching when you walk through thousands of white crosses," he said. "They were all brothers, sisters and husbands. You really realize the magnitude of the war."