By Chris Stone
A group of people huddled around Joseph Reilly, 97, who told of the December 1944 Siege of Bastogne — part of World War II’s Battle of the Bulge.
“Bastogne was very cold, and there was a lack of ammunition,” the Santee resident said before the annual Memorial Day ceremony at Mount Soledad in La Jolla.
“You had to make every shot count,” he said. “When you are in combat and you are running out of ammo, that’s a very serious thing.”A rapt audience soon was applauding Reilly, who sat in a wheelchair near a plaque in his honor. People shook hands with him and thanked him for his service. One gave him a hug.
Schools were closed Monday, but it was still a day of education at Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial as veterans taught youth the value of their service.
Boy Scouts and active-duty Marines looked on as veterans pointed out plaques honoring their service and spoke of battles in the Pacific more than 70 years ago.
Now in their late 80s and 90s, veterans of World War II told of their harrowing youth in the Army and the friends that never returned home.
Reilly, a private in the 101st Airborne Division, spoke of his time with the Screaming Eagles: “We knew who we were, and the Germans knew who we were too. When we came into the battle, things changed real fast.”
The 101st Airborne and the 82nd Division had remarkable records, he told those who asked questions and learned from him.
“One time we were outnumbered 4-to-1,” he said. “By God, we held on. We did a good job.”
Story continues below
Reilly was a paratrooper who landed on Normandy’s Utah Beach at 3:30 a.m. D-Day.
“You take American servicemen and you put them out there all alone in a foxhole,” he said, continuing his lesson. “He’ll keep digging that foxhole and put logs over the top of it. When the Krauts come around, he’s ready for them.”
That ability to think for themselves, even if officers were not around, made them superior soldiers, he said.
Reilly planned to leave San Diego on Tuesday to make yet another return trip to the beaches of Normandy.
On past trips, he said, he would look out over Omaha Beach and think: “’My God, that is the last day these men were on this earth.’ We lost so many men… I’ll be there next week. I’ll put on my uniform. I can still get in it.
“I’ll put on my jump boots and let the people know what a World War II man looked like.”
Reilly labels himself “a man that served in combat during World War II and damn proud of it.”
As a group of Marines approached him, Reilly shouted, “I’m very proud of all of you, men.”
A Marine replied, “Well, we’re very honored to be in your presence.”
They gathered around him, had their photo taken with Reilly and stayed to listen to his stories.
More than a thousand people sat on folding chairs at the base of the memorial and heard addresses from Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Broadwater and Cmdr. Lew Witherspoon, vice president of the Mount Soledad memorial, accompanied by Navy Band Southwest.
Local dignitaries included San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Assemblymen Todd Gloria and Randy Voepel, Rep. Scott Peters, Councilman Chris Cate, county Supervisor and Purple Heart recipient Bill Horn and District Attorney Summer Stephan,
Also attending were San Marcos Mayor Jim Desmond, El Cajon Councilman Gary Kendrick and Lemon Grove Mayor Racquel Vasquez.
The ceremony included a 21-gun salute and flyover with vintage aircraft that formed the “missing man” formation in honor of lost servicemen.
Asked what Memorial Day meant to him, Bill Galbraith of Murrieta said, “I was in Normandy, so you can image that it means quite a bit. I lost friends. My company lost two-thirds the first day.”
He was 20 then and 94 now. And his lesson for the younger generations: “We don’t kneel for the national anthem. You can be sure of that. In my day, everyone was patriotic.”
Also before the ceremony, Kenneth Haygood, 89, who also served in World War II, pointed out his plaque to a group of Boy Scouts who were polishing the walls of plaques.
He brought an illustration that his daughter made and taped it above his family plaque, bearing his name, father’s name and other relatives who served in the military.
Haygood was one of the first to have his plague installed at the memorial and is impressed with the annual ceremony.
However, he does have fond memories of the hill long before it was made into a memorial.
“I used to bring my girlfriends up here. We’d neck. That was way back in the ’40s,” Haygood said, laughing.
As part of the Memorial Day ceremony, a plaque honoring Civil War Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was unveiled. Brig. Gen. Broadwater, who spoke of Grant and the history of Memorial Day, ended his speech with a request.
“The generations of brave and courageous warriors dedicated themselves to the defense of the United States and that’s why we have Memorial Day. Each fallen hero’s spirit lives on through us all,” said the commanding general of the Fort Irwin National Training Center in San Bernardino County.
“Through your own actions,” Broadwater asked of the audience, “keep faith with all of those who have fought our wars by keeping their memory alive.”
>> Subscribe to Times of San Diego’s free daily email newsletter! Click hereFollow Us: