Guest column: The number of WWII heroes still alive is dwindling. This is the story of one.
My father’s brother, my uncle Joe Ludema, will celebrate his 101st birthday Nov. 17. He served as a combat medic in the third infantry division, seventh army under General George S. Patton.
It is estimated that 348 World War II veterans die each day. Joe Ludema, one of the few that remain, enlisted in the army Jan. 26, 1942, at the age of 22. By November of the same year with the third, he landed in French Morocco, North Africa, where the Allies freed Tunisia from German occupation. This landing was the first of three contested amphibious landings he and the third would endure over the next three years.
As a combat medic, Mr. Ludema experienced some of the worst combat of the European theater. The third infantry division, nicknamed “Rock of the Marne,” has the distinction of fighting the Axis powers in North Africa and on all European fronts, the only division to do so.
In July 1943, Joe experienced his second contested amphibious landing with the third in Sicily under the command of General Patton. After taking Palermo and Messina, Sicily, from the Axis in the Sicilian campaign, medic Ludema with the third next fought the battle of Monte Cassino on the Italian mainland. In this battle the Allies suffered 55,000 casualties.
After a brief rest from Monte Cassino, the third infantry division accepted its next assignment in January of 1944 with its third and most famous contested amphibious landing at Anzio, also on the Italian mainland. Here they met an entrenched German army where the Allies were kept from going inland, enduring four months of bombardment and fighting. Mr. Ludema tells of an incident where 16 American soldiers were assigned to a night infiltration of the German lines to gather information. He states “that not one returned.” During four months at Anzio one of his duties was to drive ambulances out on the battlefield under cover of darkness to pick up dead and wounded. In March of 1944 at Anzio, the third division alone suffered 900 casualties in one day, the most of any American division in World War II. It wasn’t until May of 1944 that they were able to break out of the beachhead, moving inland with the allied army to free Rome.
Aug. 15, 1944, saw the division invading Southern France as part of code named “Operation Dragoon.” Moving north through occupied France with continuous fighting, the third attacked the German Siegfried Line in January 1945. During one period, April 17-20, 1945, in a fierce urban battle, the third experienced block by block fighting to take Nuremberg.
When the war ended in May of 1945 it was the seventh army and Joe with the third infantry division under Patton that captured Hitler’s mountain retreat of Berchtesgaden.
From his enlistment in the army in 1942 to his discharge Sept. 18, 1945, Mr. Ludema experienced 531 days of combat, covering two continents, the most of any division in World War II. He received the following awards: The French Fourragere shoulder cord; Unit Presidential Citation; Combat Medic Badge; African, European, Middle East Medal; three Copper Arrowhead Devices (for three amphibious landings); and the Good Conduct Medal. Mr. Ludema presently lives in West Michigan.
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