By Jim Hoehn
With row upon row of white headstones as a somber backdrop, World War II Veteran Gene Schulz simply, but eloquently, expressed the meaning of Memorial Day.
“What a beautiful day this is, and we are truly on hallowed ground,” Schulz said. “What a marvelous opportunity we have to honor the men and women who sacrificed the ultimate.”
Schulz, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate the Ohrdruf concentration camp, was the guest speaker at the annual Memorial Day Observance at Wood National Cemetery at the Milwaukee Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
More than 1,400 attended the 88th annual event on a picturesque spring Wisconsin morning. The ceremony included performances by the Milwaukee American Legion Band, and Milwaukee Children’s Choir; a flyover by the Wisconsin Wing of the Commemorative Air Force; and a presentation of Wreaths; as well as numerous Veterans groups.
Schulz was born on a dairy farm in Clintonville, Wisconsin, and graduated from high school in 1941. The next year, he was drafted into the Army at 19, eventually crossing the Atlantic with 16,000 other troops aboard the Queen Mary.
Schulz landed in France on July 22, 1944, his 21st birthday and 46 days after D-Day. He was assigned to the headquarters of XX Corps, which was attached to Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army.
He had the rapt attention of the crowd as he told two stories with widely divergent themes about the war.
In the first, Schulz talked of being an eyewitness to the atrocities at Ohrdruf, where he photographed and helped archive the horrors of history. He also related the story of Army Col. Welborn Griffith, credited with saving the historic Chartres Cathedral in France, and then was killed later that day.
John Mercure of WTMJ radio was master of ceremonies. Mercure, whose grandfather served at Pearl Harbor, was an embedded journalist in Iraq and is on the board of directors for Stars and Stripes Honor Flight.
Other speakers included U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore; Dr. Daniel Zomchek, director of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, and whose four grandparents are buried at Wood National Cemetery; and Dan Stapleton, whose father was one of five brothers from North Lake, Wisconsin who all served at the same time in World War II.
“While today is a day off for many, it will never feel right to call Memorial Day a holiday. It’s a special day,” Zomchek said. “A special day of reflection, honoring and remembrance.
“There are really aren’t any words that take away that painful sting of loss,” he said. “But do know, on this day and always, we grieve with you. We help each other by sharing that burden. And, most importantly, we remember them all. “
On Monday afternoon, Zomcheck served as Grand Marshall of Milwaukee’s 153rd annual Memorial Day Parade, which ended at the Milwaukee County War Memorial.