Article and photo reprinted with permission by The Republic, Columbus, Ind.
A tight-knit group of World War II soldiers who liberated the French town of Metz have another memory to add to their collective experience.
It’s a bridge in Columbus, named for them and their iron will.
Members of the U.S. Army 95th Division, 377th Infantry, Company I — now in their
late 80s and early 90s — accepted hugs, handshakes and applause Friday as they pulled the cover off a highway sign naming the span over Clifty Creek on U.S. 31.
It’s now the Iron Men of Metz Memorial Bridge.
Nearly 200 people attended the ceremony, which state Rep. Milo Smith opened by saying the veterans — seated in a line in the front row — were the “Iron Men of the Hour.”
Charles “Red” Whittington, who served in the unit and is hosting a reunion of the veterans this weekend, said it meant a lot to the men that there would be a permanent memory of their service remembered through the bridge dedication.
And it meant a lot to him that the permanent memory was located in his hometown.
“It’s the third time that we’ve had the guys here in Columbus, but this makes it really special,” he said.
Whittington’s granddaughter, Kristin, had tears in her eyes when Smith concluded his speech by reading Gov. Mike Pence’s executive order to rename the local bridge.
“I’m excited and relieved, both. It’s taken two years for this process to come through,” Kristin Whittington said. “My grandfather was very ill a year and a half ago. When he was ill, he didn’t know that the process had started. And now I’m glad it happened. I’m glad that he was able to host his comrades.”
Whittington was released from the hospital this week in order to be a part of the reunion and dedication ceremony.
His family had pursued the possibility of naming a road or bridge for the famous infantry company for the past two years. It was a process that had to wind its way through the Indiana Statehouse, Pence’s office and the federal government, but the family’s dream of having the infantry company recognized happened.
Friday’s ceremony should show local veterans that area residents appreciate their service and sacrifice, his granddaughter said.
“It’s important that everyone understand that there is a cost to freedom,” Kristin Whittington said.
The bridge dedication is the third tribute in the United States to the U.S. Army 95th division, the other two being highways in Kansas and Texas.
Richard Caldwell, a Columbus resident and commander of the AMVETS Department of Indiana, said the bridge dedication ceremony paid tribute to honorable men. “This is what it’s all about. Taking care of veterans who have gone before us. We can’t thank them enough,” Caldwell said. “They went through so much on that day and their spirit never wavered and our freedom today is because of them.”
After unveiling the bridge sign, the veterans paused to allow family and friends to take photos. Each received a commemorative plaque of the bridge sign as a keepsake, presented by state Sen. Greg Walker.
They posed for photos underneath and around the bridge sign, some wearing caps with the 95th Division insignia.
“We can never repay these guys for the debt of gratitude we owe them, but what we can do is never forget,” Mayor Kristen Brown said during the ceremonies. “It’s just a tremendous honor for the community to be able to give these brave men and those who couldn’t attend a lasting memory for their efforts,” she said.
The Iron Men did not speak during the dedication ceremonies, allowing the dignitaries to have the podium and the well-wishers to congratulate them as cameras clicked in a steady pace in the background.
The bond they continue to share was apparent — as they sat shoulder to shoulder during the ceremony and as they shook hands after unveiling the sign that honors their service.
Ceo Bauer, 91, said memorials such as Friday’s ceremony have increased in meaning as time goes on because there are fewer veterans to tell their story.
“This is a permanent way for people to remember the contributions we made in World War II,” Bauer said. “We liberated Europe.”