Memories and emotions came flooding back for Jim Reitzel when he and other World War II veterans flew with Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio to Washington, D.C., on Aug. 20.
The veterans visited the World War II Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery and took a tour of Washington.
"When I got to the Memorial, it brought back several memories — where I was and how many footprints I left over in Europe," said Reitzel, 86, who served in the Army Air Corps' 9th Air Force from 1943-45. "The Battle of the Bulge was sticking right out in front of me, and I was in that. I thanked the people for honoring us and taking us there. I appreciated the trip."
Reitzel's trip with Honor Flight was orchestrated by Northwood City Administrator Pat Bacon and her husband, Steve. Reitzel, who lives outside Stony Ridge, has a paved brick recognizing him at a memorial site at the Northwood Municipal Building.
When the 5-9 Reitzel went into the military he weighed 170 pounds and, he is proud to say, "I weighed 171 when I got discharged."
A husband to wife Jessie for 63 years and father of four children, Reitzel's company — the 310th Fighter Control Squadron — was sent from Santa Rosa, Calif., to Oakland to Boston by train and then shipped overseas. He was then assigned to the 312th Fighter Control Squadron when he reached Europe. Reitzel served as a radar man, and his job was to track enemy planes and notify the fighter squadron.
"We took our own planes to and from the front lines," said Reitzel, a member of the Northwood VFW. "When they got airborne, we would give them their targets. That was highly classified."
Reitzel, who earned five Battle Stars, was just 19 when he landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. He served in northern France and central Europe.
"We weren't under fire at that particular time," he recalled of the landing at Normandy. "It was about four days after D-Day, or close to it. We didn't know what to expect. We were scared. We laid out there on the beachhead on the boat, waiting to get unloaded, for two days. We didn't sleep well at night."
Reitzel spent time with the 19th Tactical Air Command, under the direction of General George Patton. The Command, Reitzel said, was always on the front line and took part in the Ardennes Offensive, also known as the Battle of the Bulge.
The Battle of the Bulge was the bloodiest battle U.S. forces experienced during World War II. More than 19,000 Americans died.
"We were always close to combat all the times," Reitzel said. "I don't know how many moves we made across Europe. We moved into the Battle of the Bulge because the Germans gave us a surprise attack and we had to get up there to get our airplanes up there and bomb them and get rid of them.
"We were surrounded. I drove through enemy lines to get through there. I got out of there on Christmas 1944. I was lucky to get out of there. Everything was booming around us. There were no prisoners taken at that time — man, woman or child was a hostile enemy to us.
"We went through enemy lines and didn't know it. They were dressed in American uniforms and were English-speaking Germans. All they wanted to do was get us in the pocket and shoot us. If we wouldn't have been successful they would have, in a day or two, killed us. We managed to get out of there."
Reitzel also survived another close call in France, but it had nothing to do with Hitler's forces. Mother Nature nearly killed Reitzel.
"We had a flight of planes in combat and we had to be on them all the time," Reitzel said. "A big storm came up and lightning came up. We had lots of wires coming in the flight control center and (the lightning) came in on the wires."
Reitzel said a lightning strike burned his knee and backside and burned his throat.
"When you're 19 or 20, you don't think how lucky you are sometimes," Reitzel said. "You go with the flow. Today, I'd think I was lucky. I know I ended up in the hospital and a priest was trying to talk to me. I had been knocked out."
Some members of Reitzel's company were also nearly done in by a bad case of French fry poisoning during the war.
"Right after D-Day, the French set up French fried potatoes for us," Reitzel said. "I never ate one before then — there weren't any in this country that I know of — but they had good French fried potatoes. They deep fried them in real butter. We all stopped to get French fried potatoes and they were good. We started getting very sick with them, sick to our stomach. I didn't get sick, but some did.
"Somebody didn't like it and they poisoned them. We were forbidden to buy them. They only cost us probably 10 cents at the most."
After the war, Reitzel took a career as a crane and bulldozer operator for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 18, which helped build the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station.