FALLS CHURCH, Va. - The boys would be here any minute. Eddie
Willner waited in his favorite recliner, frail body listing against
an inner storm. A stroke and Parkinson's had taken their toll,
and he had been afraid, at first, that this party would be too
much for him. There were bowls of pretzels and chips on the coffee
table, and finger sandwiches in the dining room, which his wife,
Johanna, had decked out in red, white and blue. They had even
ordered a sheet cake decorated with white frosting roses and
a battle insignia.
Eddie peered out the living room window and tugged his shirt
sleeve down to cover the blue numbers tattooed on his forearm.
Over the front porch hung a banner welcoming the old soldiers
to a reunion of the 3rd Armored Spearhead Division, Company D,
32nd Armored Regiment. More, than 50 years had passed without
a word. Memories, like snapshots, faded away. Eddie Willner was
a lost piece of Company D's history.
Lost, that is, until this weekend, when the faces of a half
century ago appeared at the Willners' front door in Falls Church,
Va., and the men of Company D - the men who 57 years ago gave
Eddie Willner his life back - came to his home to honor him.
He was 18 when they found him, half-dead. After surviving
five years in concentration camps, where both of his parents
were killed, Eddie and a Dutch friend named Mike Swaab fled their
SS guards while on a death march in the waning weeks of World
War II. Four others were shot in the escape, and a German shepherd
chasing them bit Mike in the leg.
On April 12,1945, they heard the rumble of tanks approaching,
and ran out in their ragged prison uniforms, pointing to the
identification numbers tattooed on their arms. The "A"
stood for Auschwitz.
"They could have just thrown us K-rations and moved on,"
explained Eddie, now 76. Eddie and his friend pointed out German
foxholes they had spotted during their three days of hiding,
and the Americans easily took the nearby village.
Eddie and Mike were not that much younger than their rescuers,
and they made themselves useful to the kitchen crew. There was
no big debate, no official decision, to let them stay. Both boys
had lost their entire families in the concentration camps, and,
with no one else left in the world to claim them, Company D did.
Eddie stayed for nearly six months, until the last of Company
D left. Then, sponsored by a cousin in Connecticut, he made his
way to America, and immediately joined the Army. He never saw
anyone from Company D again.
Did they realize, he wondered, what they meant to him? Eddie's
wife, Johanna, called out to her husband: "Pepsi is here."
Louis "Pepsi" Decola had been one of the mess sergeants.
He had given Eddie one of his extra uniforms and helped fatten
up the two starved survivors.
"There he is! Hey, buddy! How are you?" Pepsi called
out, hurrying into Eddie's waiting embrace. The two men held
tight. When he finally spoke, Eddie's voice was choked with tears.
"Oh," Eddie cried on Pepsi's shoulder. "Oh
God, oh God." "I know." Pepsi murmured. Pepsi
was eager to catch up. Now 83 and living in Massachusetts with
his wife of 54 years, Pepsi has retired from the diner business.
"You owe me a shirt, you know!" Pepsi teased. Eddie
grinned as Johanna brought out the brand-new camouflage uniform
he had bought to give Pepsi.
"OK," said Eddie, "I give you back your uniform."
Pepsi had brought along his battered old autograph book and pointed
out Eddie's signature along with the rest of the company's. There
had been 130 men in all. Seventeen were still alive, that they
knew of. They had gathered for reunions every year since 1972,
but no one had known what became of the two boys they had picked
up that day.
In recent years, as Eddie's health spiraled, Johanna noticed
he spoke more often, and more urgently, of "the boys"
from Company D. A few years ago, with the 50th anniversary of
the war's end at hand, she tracked down the company commander,
and because Eddie was too weak to travel to their annual reunion,
they began laying plans for one at Eddie's house.
As more of "the boys" arrived, with families in
tow, the Willners' small house filled with 50, maybe 60 people.
Five of Eddie's six grown children were there, along with some
of his 11 grandchildren. Three of his kids had gone into the
military; another is teaching at West Point. Eddie served in
the Army for more than 20 years, retiring as a major. He then
worked as a linguist for the Commerce Department. Being of service
was important - he wanted to show his country, and now these
men, how grateful he was. This party was a small way of doing
Everyone lined up in the hallway to get nametags and then
make their way to Eddie's recliner, where he eagerly peered into
each face but recognized only Pepsi and Elmer Hovland. A beloved
mess sergeant who had befriended Eddie had died two years ago,
and Eddie informed everyone that Mike, the Dutchman, was gone
12 years now.
"See my license plate out there?" Eddie said, nodding
out the window to the red SUV parked beneath a huge U.S. flag.
The personalized tag number A-5662 - was the same one tattooed
on Mike's arm at Auschwitz.
Eddie told his story to each of them, again and again, pausing
for sips of ice water from the glass trembling in his hand.
"Take your time, Eddie," Pepsi urged.
"I weighed only 75 pounds," Eddie whispered.
The guests consulted a map propped up behind a menorah on
a console in the living room. That would have been where they
picked up Eddie, they said, pointing, somewhere in the Harz Mountains.
"There were no questions asked," Pepsi said. "They
were just two ragged kids. We took them in."
"We need the story," a wife said. "Sshhh,"
someone said, all chatter falling still as they tried once more
to hear: Eddie had been taken prisoner at 12 when his family,
having fled Germany, was betrayed while hiding in a village on
the French-Belgian border. His mother was sent straight to the
gas chamber at Auschwitz; his father had been killed on his 50th
birthday, because 50 was considered too old to be of much use
at forced labor.
A dog barking outside drowned out Eddie's voice again. It
was Eddie's dog, Teddy. A German shepherd. Eddie would have nothing
else. His shepherds have all been gentle and good, reminders
that cruelty is not innate to any species but must be taught.
The boys of Company D cut the sheet cake, carefully leaving
their insignia intact.
Eddie was growing tired. Someone's grandson asked if he could
see the numbers on Eddie's arm, and Eddie obliged. The men headed
outside for a photo on the front porch. The presented Eddie with
a signed copy of the regiment's history inscribed: "To our
good friend." Fifty-seven years slipped by, and the forgotten
survivor stood unsteadily in the arms of the rescuers who appeared,
again, when he needed them.
"Thank you," he told the boys of Company D.