Today it is eighty years since Americans first began to make the ultimate sacrifice to liberate Europe. When I think of the enormity of the challenge confronting those who landed in Sicily on 10 July 1943, I picture many extraordinary warriors, some of whom I’ve interviewed and written about. But only one soldier among this cohort began the war as a draftee and rose through the ranks to become a general officer, eventually commanding the First Infantry Division.
Keith Ware was a captain when he came ashore on Yellow Beach near Licata on the southern coast of Sicily. He was a bespectacled, 27-year-old, leading Company B of the 15th Infantry Regiment of the Third Infantry Division. Among his troops, acting as his runner, was the baby-faced Audie Murphy, the most decorated U.S. infantryman of WWII.
Nothing in Ware’s background suggested he would become a superlative combat commander. Indeed, he had been a soft-spoken, mild-mannered manager of a department store in California before being called to serve. Yet, on only his second day of action, he earned the Silver Star, leading his men across open ground, under fire, to knock out a German strongpoint.
Over the past several years, I have followed Ware’s subsequent route across Europe. His was an epic odyssey to the heart of Nazi darkness from the arid hinterland of Sicily, where he managed to march his men fifty-four miles in thirty-three hours – a record in World War II for U.S. foot soldiers.
After landing near Salerno in September 1943, Ware and his fellow “dogface soldiers” of the Third Division fought up the jagged spine of Italy, setting another record, this time for continuous combat in Europe for Americans: sixty days of straight fighting – longer in hell than any other unit.
Ware’s third amphibious invasion was at Anzio in January 1944. His division again entered the record books when it lost 995 men on 23 May 1944, suffering the highest casualties on one day by any U.S. Army division in World War II, as the Allies finally broke through German lines, headed for Rome.
Ware had been promoted to Lt. Colonel and was a battalion commander on 15 August 1944 when the 7th Army landed in Provence as part of Operation Dragoon, the fourth time Ware led men onto hostile shores. There followed a deadly slog through the Vosges Mountains during the winter of 1944-45. On 26 December, during the Battle of the Colmar Pocket, near the town of Sigolsheim, Ware left his command post and rushed to a hill, labelled 351 on his map. Fearing that B Company, which he had commanded in Sicily, might be destroyed, he led an attack, firing a BAR and then an M-1 rifle, clearing four machine-gun positions and capturing twenty Germans. His actions earned him the Medal of Honor.
I’ve stood at the very spot where Ware later received the highest award for conspicuous gallantry on 22 April 1945. It’s just a few yards from where Hitler ranted and raved in the Thirties at the Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg. Ware wore sunglasses and was beside four other Third Division recipients when 7th Army commander Alexander Patch placed the ultimate honor around his neck. To this day, the Third Division holds the record for the number of Medals of Honor awarded for actions during World War II. No less than forty “dogface soldiers” received the medal – twenty times more than the celebrated Screaming Eagles, the 101st Airborne.
Just a few weeks ago, I visited Salzburg in Austria where Ware set up his final command post in May 1945. I marveled at how he had managed to survive the long, bloody journey from the golden beaches of Sicily – twenty-two months of killing and dying. 35,000 men in Ware’s division had become casualties by the time the guns finally fell silent. In all, more than 140,000 Americans in the U.S. Army had lost their lives during the liberation of Western Europe.
This July, I’ll visit Ware’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. I’ll be accompanied by some thirty teachers, from sixteen states across this country, who will be attending Friends of the National World War II Memorial’s annual teachers’ conference. I’ll explain how Ware stayed in the U.S. Army, continued to rise through the ranks and then chose to serve in Vietnam as commander of the First Infantry Division before being killed when his helicopter was shot down in September 1968.
Major General Keith Ware was just 52-years-old when he died – the only soldier to receive the Medal of Honor, since World War I, who was killed in a later war. At his grave at Arlington, final resting place for more than 14,000 veterans, I’ll pay my respects to one of the most remarkable Army officers this nation has ever produced. Almost eighty years to the day after the Allies began to liberate Europe, I’ll thank God for men like Keith Ware, drawn from the ways of peace, who went far beyond the call of duty to set so many millions free.