I had witnessed man at his best and at his worst, incredibly brave men willing to give all for their country and for their fellow man and men so calloused by war that they did incredibly debased things that I could not imagine any man being capable of. This included both Americans and Germans. —Colin Delahunty
SALT LAKE CITY — Where to start telling World War II veteran Colin Delahunty's story.
Should it begin in the frozen, snow-covered Ardennes Forest where he spent his first night in a foxhole singing Christmas carols to comfort a despondent soldier?
Maybe it starts with the inconceivable inhumanity he encountered when his infantry division liberated a Nazi concentration camp in central Germany.
Or maybe it's the nightmares he still has more than 70 years later that he didn't train soldiers well enough to fight.
What about the fact that he wasn't even an American citizen when he registered with the local draft board?
Delahunty still has amazing recall at age 97, though he admits his memory is fading on some of the details. But his tender emotions remain close to the surface. Tears fill his eyes as shares bits and pieces of his remarkable three-year stint in the Army.
Like most members of the Greatest Generation, the Bountiful man never sought accolades for his service. And he doesn't romanticize or glamorize it, either.
"I had witnessed man at his best and at his worst, incredibly brave men willing to give all for their country and for their fellow man and men so calloused by war that they did incredibly debased things that I could not imagine any man being capable of. This included both Americans and Germans," he wrote in a brief life history.
"I hated the senseless killing and the suffering and the misery of war but was proud that I had done my duty and helped my adopted country in her hour of need."
Delahunty and 65 other World War II veterans were on the Utah Honor flight this past week to Washington, D.C., returning Saturday to Utah to a hero's welcome. He sobbed when he saw "Battle of the Bulge" carved in granite beneath the Atlantic pavilion at the World War II Memorial.
"I was there and I lost a lot of friends," he said. "I'm so happy to be here, and yet it brings back some sad memories. It's just hard to describe."
His tears flow again at the memorial's wall of stars representing the 400,000 men and women who died in the war.
"I was lucky that I didn't get killed. I can't help thinking about the guys that were killed," he said.
Delahunty was born in Perth, Australia. His family joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he was a boy. At age 22 he moved to Utah in November 1939 to join his mother, two sisters and a brother who had immigrated earlier. It snowed the day after his arrival. After experiencing the white stuff for the first time, he decided he didn't like and has never changed his mind.
Two years later, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, drawing the U.S. into the war already raging in Europe. Delahunty's younger brother who stayed in his homeland was fighting for Australia in the Pacific. Delahunty felt he should do his part.
"My conscience kept bothering me," he said in an interview in his apartment before his trip to Washington, D.C.
He didn't have enough money to go back to Australia, so he went to a recruiting office in Salt Lake City. The recruiter rejected him because he wasn't a citizen but told him if he volunteered for the draft, he could get in.
Delahunty reported to Fort Douglas in November 1942 with 200 men — one Australian (him), one Englishman, one Canadian and 197 Mexicans who didn't speak much English — and was soon on his way to basic training in Arkansas.
While there, he became a U.S. citizen. He also became proficient on every infantry weapon and was promoted to platoon sergeant and began training new recruits.
"We put a lot of effort into making the guys soldiers," he said.
Delahunty laments that six weeks wasn't long enough to prepare them for combat. Dreams about that still haunt him 70 years later, and he wishes he'd done more.
Battle of the Bulge
The Army shipped him overseas just after the Germans launched a surprise attack in December 1944 that came to be known as the Battle of Bulge. He joined the 87th Infantry, and will never forget his first night in the Ardennes in Belgium. His voice cracks with emotion as he tells the story:
"We got out of the trucks and we were in a forest of fir trees, tall beautiful fir trees. I'd never seen anything prettier in all my life. Heavy snow. Colder than hell. Wet feet. Cold as heck. We started digging foxholes and we'd shove off the next morning.
"I got one finished. About the time a got in it, some little guy, a replacement passed my foxhole. He was crying, lost, didn't know where he was. So I pulled him into the foxhole with me and kind of comforted him. I told him he couldn't do any good wandering around in the dark. He was going to get challenged and he didn't have the password or anything else, so I kept him in the foxhole with me all night.
"We sang Christmas carols. I gave him a pep talk and kept him busy talking. We shoved off at 4 o'clock the next morning into combat. I don't know what happened to him, but I always felt sorry for him."
So started more than 100 days of heavy combat Delahunty would endure. In all, he fought in three major campaigns — the Ardennes, the Rhineland and Central Europe.
As a recon sergeant, he was often assigned to scout out enemy gun positions. He dodged gun fire, evaded Tiger tanks and came face to face with German soldiers. He said he relied on prayer to survive. More than once he had a feeling to move to another position, and as soon as he did, a deadly shell would hit the spot where he'd been.
"I don't know how to explain it. I prayed a lot. I had somebody looking after me," he said.
Delahunty again becomes sad as he vividly recalls his division liberating the Ohrdruf forced labor and concentration camp in central Germany:
"When I got up the gates of this concentration camp, those poor devils were standing there, just skin and bones. I looked in one of the sleeping quarters and all it was was a bunch of bins built along one wall where they load about 15 guys into one bin, sleeping on top of one another.
"Then I went out the back and found where they'd taken a bulldozer and bulldozed a deep trench, a couple of hundred yards or more. It was full of bodies. They just worked them until they couldn't work anymore and them took them back there and shot them and pushed them in."
Delahunty said he tried to interact with the emaciated survivors, but it was hard.
"They just couldn't believe that they were free," he said.
The Army discharged Delahunty on Dec. 1, 1945, at Fort Douglas, where his service began three years earlier. The only person waiting for him there was the boss he'd worked for at Kraft Foods before the war. He offered Delahunty his old job back, but more importantly introduced him to the woman who would become his wife.
Delahunty said he was a "little bit disillusioned" after the war, but immersed himself in the LDS Church. He ultimately served as bishop twice, went on three missions with his wife, Gwen, and was a stake patriarch for 19 years.
He is long retired now as vice president of a mortgage company. His wife died in 2011. He lives alone in a nicely furnished assisted living center. His son and only child, Bob, checks on him frequently. He will turn 98 in January.
As he wrote in his life history about his war experience, "There is no doubt He was looking after me as I seemed to live a charmed life."
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