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Tom Archdeacon: Springfield veteran racks up honors as he nears 100

Springfield News-Sun - 5/19/2024

May 19—SPRINGFIELD — On Memorial Day, when the Cincinnati Reds honor Walter Stitt during a game with the St. Louis Cardinals, the 99-year-old World War II veteran from Springfield has a story for them.

He was a young ammo loader and then a gunner on Sherman tanks with the U.S. Army's33rd Armored Regiment, 3rd Armored Division. As part of the revered combat unit, Task Force Lovelady, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and other conflicts in France, Germany and Belgium.

Along the way three of his tanks were destroyed by German shells or mines. Three tankmates — including two commanders — were killed right beside him and several other men were injured.

Twice wounded in battle himself, Stitt received two Purple Hearts and a few years ago was awarded the National Order of the Legion of Merit, France's highest honor for military members and civilians.

"When your tank gets destroyed, you've got to get out of it, and if you do, you're right in the middle of battle," he said. "You're a target and you've got no gun, nothing.

"Every time that happened to me, I got shot at. The first time it was a German burp gun.

"The second time my tank commander and I heard this "zip...zip...zip' going by and I yelled, 'John, they're shooting at us with a machine gun!'

"I want to tell the Reds, 'If you think Elly De La Cruz can run, you should have seen me move back then!'"

Some 80 years later, Stitt hasn't slowed down.

In just over two months — July 24 — he turns 100. But don't think he requires a cane, a rocking chair or even a nap.

What he needs is a social secretary, an event planner, an executive assistant — someone to handle his ever-burgeoning daily schedule.

Talk about on the run: — During the May 27th game, he'll be called onto a makeshift stage at Great American Ball Park and his likeness will be shown on the big video board as the PA announcer tells the crowd of his exploits. Watching from the stands will be 51 friends and family members, including his daughter Bev Rutan from Springfield and his son, Bob Stitt, from Centerville who initiated this honor with a letter to the Reds. — Three days later, May 30, as part of a select group of World War II veterans chosen for a special Honor Flight, he'll board an Americans Airlines jet to Dallas and then another to Paris before visiting Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc and Utah Beach.

Accompanied by Bev, he'll take part in a parade at Sainte M'ere-Eglise, the first French town liberated in the D-Day invasion.

The centerpiece of the trip will be the 80th anniversary ceremony of the D-Day invasion held at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, which honors American troops killed in Europe during World War II. There are 9,388 graves there. — Some five weeks after he returns from Europe — on July 15 — his book: "Surviving Three Shermans with the 3rd Armored Division" will be released by Casement Publishers and be available on Amazon.

His title for the book was "What I Didn't Tell Mother About My War" and that admission is included on the cover.

The book is the result of nearly five years of effort by Stitt and his daughter putting together the cache of 82 letters he sent his mom after he enlisted in the Army at age 18.

Unbeknownst to him, his mother saved all those letters he sent to their Kruger Street home in Elm Grove, West Virginia. She secretly stored them in a Jane Parker hat box.

When she died, many of her belongings went to Walter, a Lutheran minister, who stored the boxes in his South Bend home and forgot them.

After Stitt's wife Betty died — and later another companion died, too — Beverly and Bob convinced him to move back to Springfield to be closer to his family. He had graduated from the Hamma School of Theology, which was then part of Wittenberg College, and had served as minister at two Lutheran churches in town.

As his belongings were condensed, the letters were discovered.

"My dad never really talked about his war experiences, so I didn't know what he went through," Bev said after reading the letters, which Walter had watered down because he didn't want to frighten his family about the dangers he faced, nor did he want to draw the attention of Army censors.

The book dovetails those two worlds — the more sanitized letters and Walter's unvarnished recollections now that, along with humor and compassion, also present the horrors of war. — Nine days after his book is released, Walter turns 100. And in the month that follows there will be birthday celebrations and book signings, including one at the Heritage Center in Springfield.

Stitt is an amazing nonagenarian blessed with good health, a sharp memory and quick wit.

He lives on his own at the Forest Glen senior living campus just north of Springfield. His villa is decorated with a few medals and war remembrances, including a small diorama given to him by villagers in a Belgian town during a return visit to Europe with some of his fellow 3rd Armored Division members.

Across the top of the artwork, it reads: "Thank You for Our Freedom."

Stitt cooks his own meals, takes daily walks, drives during the daytime, and works crossword puzzles to stay sharp.

"I have to keep telling myself I'm 99 years old because I just don't feel that way mentally," he said the other afternoon, then chuckled. "Physically, though, I'm beginning to get there real quick."

He said part of the reason for his vibrant longevity is staying active: "What makes life exiting for me is to always have something planned, something to look forward to."

And that explains some of the nearly two dozen trips he took to England with Betty during their 57 years of marriage.

Bev notes he also has good genes. His brother will be 97 in November. And his sister — even though she had poor health since she was little — lived to be 90. His mother and her sister both lived to 95, as did his dad's youngest brother.

She said another key is that her dad has "the most positive outlook about life you can imagine."

There would be reason not too — from all the death he experienced during the war to the loss of his son Billie, a 7-year-old first grader at Springfield'sJefferson Elementary, who was hit and killed by a truck on McCreight Avenue as he ran anxiously to show his mom his school papers.

"A lot of things have gone wrong or been really bad," Bev said. "But Dad always keeps faith that it's gonna be OK. That tomorrow is a new day, and we can move on."

Bob said one other factor has to be considered, as well:

"Luck...he survived the war! He's lucky to be alive."

'No more bombs'

"I came to Europe as a replacement gunner," Stitt said. "You try not to think about it, but being a replacement means you're taking the place of someone who was killed or wounded.

"And at first, when we'd get a tank that was just painted white, you thought it was new. But you learned when a shell hit someone in a tank, they exploded and there was blood everywhere, so they painted over the blood with white paint."

He arrived in Europe — in Scotland — on D-Day and soon was on Normandy's Omaha Beach. His was one of the first tanks to get through the Siegfried Line, Germany's defense system along its western border.

But on Sept. 19, 1944, his tank was hit by a German shell. He was a loader then and the gunner and commander were killed. The two dead men fell into each other and blocked the turret so he couldn't escape.

He was trapped until he found the driver's hatch was open. He dove out, severely jamming his shoulder, and as he ran from gunfire and exploding shells, he tripped over barbed wire and suffered shrapnel wounds in his leg.

Within 24 hours he was in another tank, though this one eventually was blown up in a mine field.

On Jan. 6, 1945 — in heavy snow and bitter cold — his third tank approached a small Belgian village which had been under German control. He said they were accompanied by eight young infantrymen on their first day of combat. Early that morning their leader had been killed.

A German who had been hidden suddenly stood with a Panzerfaust anti-tank weapon. His first shot killed some of the panicked infantrymen and a second ripped into the tank killing Stitt's commander, Sgt. John Fasula, who fell on top of him.

Stitt escaped and was under small arms fire as he made his way to a nearby woods. He took a lot of shrapnel to the head and later a doctor assessed he was suffering "battle fatigue" and his combat days were over.

He spent the rest of the war in England.

He remembers V-E Day when Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies and celebrations broke out around the world.

He was in London and went to Leicester Square.

"In peacetime that's where all the theaters were," he said. "For five years it had been blacked out, but all of a sudden the lights were turned on."

He told of a woman standing next to him, holding the hand of her young son:

"She was crying and suddenly I was crying, too. The feeling just overwhelmed you.

"No more bodies being shipped back. No more bombs. No more running down air raid shelters. Nobody was going to get killed anymore."

Reds honor

Following a brief stop at Marietta College after returning home from the war and then a job as a Formica salesman, the 35-year-old Stitt — married eight years and with three small children — said he was called to the ministry.

After graduating from Hamma, he began a long career as a Lutheran minister in Louisville, South Bend and Springfield.

While in Springfield, he took Bob to his first Cincinnati Reds game at Crosley Field.

"It was in August of 1960," said Bob, who's now 70. "They played San Francisco and I believe the Giants' starting pitcher was Billy O'Dell. I can't remember the Reds' starter.

"After that we'd go to Reds games four or five times a year. I have scorecards I got autographed. We moved to Louisville in 1965 and three years later the Louisville Colonels, a Triple A farm club of the Boston Red Sox, began playing there. My dad got me a job as their bat boy. I was there all through high school and my last two years I was the clubhouse manager."

He remembered Carlton Fisk, Luis Tiant and Jim Lonborg playing there.

"The very first year the Reds came in to play an exhibition and Pete Rose was on the disabled list with a broken wrist," he said. "I was just sitting there, and he said, 'Hey kid, c'mon over here. Let's play some pepper.'

"It was just him and me throwing the ball back and forth. For a ninth grader like me, that was the cat's meow. It was unbelievable. "A year later the Washington Senators came in. Ted Williams was their manager, and we got our picture together in The Sporting News. Well, really, it was a picture of him, but I was standing in the background so I tell everyone we were together."

This year Bob thought of a way to pay his dad back for those early introductions to the sport.

On Opening Day, he sent Nick Krall, the Reds Director of Baseball Operations, an email telling him a little about his dad's World War II efforts; how engaged he is today at 99; and how he would be a good candidate if they were looking for someone to salute on Memorial Day.

Krall surprised him and reached out the next day. That got the ball rolling and the Reds' Nick St. Pierre got involved and the May 27th honor took shape.

"I'm just flabbergasted," Walter said.

He plans to wear his Cincinnati Reds shirt and his 3rd Armed Division hat.

He'll wear that same headwear when he goes to Normandy.

Each trip to the places he served overwhelms him he said.

He told of meeting a woman who had been two years old when the Nazis stormed into her village, herded all the women and children into a barn and shot them.

Her mother fell dead on top of her. She lay still, covered in her mom's blood, and the Germans thought she was dead. She was the only survivor,

Twice he's visited the Belgian cemetery where Fasula, the tank commander who ran alongside him in that Reds' story and who later died atop him, is buried.

His said his visits to the American Cemetery in Normandy have been especially emotional, too:

"I've stood there with tears in my eyes just looking at all those crosses and Stars of David. I think about all those young men who never had a chance to find the love of their life or hold their children in their arms.

"I don't say I came home a pacifist, but seeing all those graves, I really think there should be some way we can settle our agreements without shooting each other."

He'll share his thoughts with you should you ask, though, as Bev warned, don't try to pull him aside on Fridays at 4 p.m.

That's Happy Hour in the retirement community and over at The Club House, where residents gather, he gets two free beers.

Like he said, he always likes something to look forward to.

___

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