December and January being the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, I break from the Civil War for this personal post about my uncle, US Army PFC Joseph W. Gaffney, who was killed in action on January 21, 1945.
The above photo and most of the non-personal information comes from a blogger called Joey van Meesen or Joedemadio. Actually, it is from a museum in Diekirch, Luxembourg, not far from where the photo was taken on January 19, 1945. That's about 30 miles southeast of Bastogne, Belgium, where the 101st Airborne Division had been besieged in December.
The American soldiers advancing in the snow are from the Fifth Infantry Division, a day after they crossed to the north side of the Sauer River. Private First Class Joe Gaffney was in its 10th Regiment, at the eastern end of the line. The operation took several days, running into "strong opposition from the enemy" near Bettendorf, which is northeast of Diekirch and close to the German border.
The division had been fighting since D-Day on June 6, before Gen. George Patton's Third Army was activated in Europe. It was transferred from First to Third Army at the beginning of August.
I don't know when Joe Gaffney joined the Fifth Infantry Division, but he must have been there on December 23 when it started attacking northwest in the Echternach-Beaufort area, 40-odd miles southeast of Bastogne. The successful attack indirectly helped lift the siege of Bastogne by engaging the southern flank of the Germans' westward advance, south of the Sauer River. The January action north of the river was part of the American counter-offensive.
The reason I don't know when Joe joined the campaign in Europe is that it's not just veterans who may not want to talk about their wartime service, but also bereaved families. The people who knew Joe, especially my grandmother, didn't want to talk about his war record, or about the achievements of Patton or Franklin Roosevelt or anyone else they might have connected to his death. Her usually good-humored and loving face would grow bleak if someone brought up the topic, which they quickly learned not to.
My favorite aunt Mary Gaffney, a high school English teacher most of her life, served stateside during the war in the US Marine Corps. She also believed in peace on Earth, good will toward men. Her military service meant, as she had requested, that her ashes could be interred next to Joe's in 2014 at Long Island National Cemetery. A Catholic priest was there, along with my aunt Theresa and her husband Jerry Pinto, and some other kin including my cousin Joe Gaffney (son of Joe's younger brother Frank) and his mother, Helen Gaffney Rothermich.
Joe was younger than Mary, born on June 8, 1925. He was drafted on August 14, 1943. They were from Brooklyn, the children of Irish immigrants. Theresa, Jerry and Helen all died this year, the last of their generation.
My daughter Molly is a currently serving US Army staff sergeant who recently returned from a deployment in Iraq and has done two in Afghanistan, where Helen had written to her. She provided me with the blog link and much of the information behind this post, and came from Fort Carson, Colorado, to Helen's funeral in Connecticut. Molly's husband Jason Eller, who is now out of the Army, did three tours in Afghanistan. They were both part of the Obama surge in Kandahar, serving with the same 101st Airborne Division which, over Christmas 1944 in Bastogne, was relieved by Third Army.