June 5, 2014 –
BALDWIN, N.Y.--Sitting near a row of exercise machines at the Synergy Fitness Club here, this senior citizen wearing black nylon pants, a sweatshirt and a red baseball cap was not waiting for his grandchild to finish his or her workout at this fitness club on this Saturday afternoon.
Instead, the 89-year old David Marshall was there to work out. Naturally, Marshall’s three-day workouts would inspire members of all ages. For those who know about World War II, he is even more inspiring. He served with the Army’s 84th Infantry Division withstanding bone-chilling winter weather and deep snow during one of the European Theater’s largest and bloodiest battles, the Battle of the Bulge. Marshall, a mortar man for Company M, 3rd Battalion, 334th Infantry Regiment, ensures every member knows he fought there.
The patch on his cap is the Division’s “Railsplitters” insignia (an axe splitting a log). The Division later became the current Army Reserve’s 84th Training Command (Unit Readiness), Fort Knox, Ky.
“They have to see it and I make sure they know,” said Marshall, who has two daughters, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren. “I am not going to be shy about it, no way, I am proud of what I did. So I want them to know. A lot of them thank me and they say I am their idol. Whether I am or not, I don’t care, they say it and I am pleased.”
An Army Reserve command career counselor from one of the Command’s down trace units, the 78th Training Division, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., was also impressed after meeting Marshall while working out.
“He is very much young at heart and enjoys talking to everyone, the younger guys especially,” said Sgt. 1st Class Patrick D’Ambrosio. “He is surprisingly strong for his age. Definitely an inspiration.”
Marshall, who was raised in northern Manhattan, said he has been going to gyms for the last 19 years, concentrating on weightlifting, walking and using back and abdomen machines. He just recently took up bench pressing.
“I find (working out) very important,” said Marshall. “I feel young, I am active and I look better than most of the other guys my age or younger.
“How good bench pressing 130 pounds is I will never know but they are all raving about it so I will take it,” continued Marshall.
Marshall said he knew he wanted to take the “fight to the enemy” after the Pearl Harbor attack.
He said the reason was that his friends were joining the military. “I was not going to stay home by myself,” said Marshall, who played baseball, basketball and football in his Washington Heights’ neighborhood.
But his mother would not sign his enlistment contract. That was until he was drafted. Before being drafted, he was pursuing a chemistry degree from City College, New York.
Marshall underwent basic training at Camp Pickett, Va., with the intentions of being a medic. While there, a U.S Army college education program, the Army Specialized Training Program, was created. ASTP promised Soldiers, whose minimum IQ was 120, an accelerated college education and to graduate as officers. ASTP was cancelled in February, 1944.
He trained to become an infantryman at Camp Claiborne, La. from March, 1944 until September 1944.
He said the training included “everything they could throw at you at the time.”
“To prepare you as best as possible,” said Marshall.
Marshall’s unit sailed to Southampton, England, on a cruise liner converted to a troop ship. The trip took 10 days, said Marshall.
His unit trained at a camp near London for a month before landing on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France on Nov. 1, 1944. Marshall’s first day of combat was at Geilenkirchen on November 18, a Nazi anchor in the Siegfried Line, a series of interlocking pillboxes, troop shelters and command posts.
On that day, Marshall said he assisted a medic administering aid to a sergeant who was wounded in both of his legs. Each worked on one of the Soldier’s legs before he was evacuated. Marshall fired his first mortar outside of Prummern, Germany, on this day too.
“It was thrilling, it was unreal,” said Marshall of the first time he dropped a 12-pound mortar shell into a tube. “Remember, I am a naïve kid from New York and only 19 years old,” said Marshall. “This was way beyond anything I ever dreamed about as a kid.”
Marshall’s unit fought here until Dec. 16, 1994, when it boarded trucks and traveled on roads. The Battle of the Bulge started on this day.
“I had no idea where we were going,” said Marshall. “Before we knew it we were in Belgium.”
Marshall has several memories of the Battle of the Bulge. One of his first missions was to form a patrol and search for the enemy. Six Soldiers walked down on each side of a road.
“I don’t think we got 50 yards before they opened up on us,” said Marshall. After that, we knew where they were.”
When it came to digging three foot to five foot deep foxholes in the frozen ground, he said dynamite was sometimes used to soften the ground. Tree roots also created havoc in building foxholes, he said.
It is a well-known fact that the below freezing temperatures and deep snow created havoc for Soldiers fighting in the battle.
Marshall said his uniform consisted of an Army field jacket, a sweater, wool shirt, regular Army wool pants, long underwear and combat boots.
“Sometimes if we were lucky, they would bring us overcoats at night,” said Marshall.
He said each Soldier was given an extra pair of socks but he was afraid to take his boots off to change his socks.
He did remember one time changing his socks while in his foxhole. He took one boot off a time and held his foot over a flame created by burning the waterproofed, waxed-cardboard inner carton of a K-ration meal. He did this for each foot.
“Only a blue flame was left and the enemy could not see it (the fire),” said Marshall.
He said he kept his socks under his arms to keep them warm.
“We tried to pile on as much as we could if we could find it,” he said.
The cold weather also hampered Marshall having the ability to open the K-ration entrée that came in metal cans. Marshall said it was “impossible” to use the P-38 can opener in the frigid temperatures because his hands were frozen.
He remembers ripping one of these cans open with his mouth while under a mortar attack.
“The things you had to do,” said Marshall.
Marshall’s duties included being a forward observer and mortar man. Six Soldiers composed a mortar team (each piece of an 81-millimeter mortar weighed 45 pounds). One carried the base plate, one carried the tube and one carried the mount. Two of the team members, the gunner and assistant gunner, took shelter in a foxhole. The rest of the squad carried ammunition and took shelter in a nearby foxhole.
Marshall said as an observer, he would direct fire one over the objective, one under the objective and the third was usually on target.
“That is a thrill,” he said of watching a round impact on the target.
He said he preferred being a mortar man but as an observer, he could and still can today judge distances.
He can also still remember Christmas morning of 1944.
Before, it had been cloudy every day since the battle started.
“The sun came out and we looked and before you knew it, the sky was full of American planes, dive bombers, all kinds of planes,” said Marshall. “They went after the Germans like you wouldn’t believe. And that is when we went on the attack.”
Marshall said once the American forces attacked, the time went faster. The battle ended Jan. 25, 1945.
Marshall and his unit were able to spend a few days recovering in Holland. He said the first thing he did was take a hot shower.
“You did not want to get out so you took as long as you could,” he said.
The remainder of the war’s highlights for Marshall included crossing the Roer River and driving all the way to the River Elbe where the Americans who were advancing to Berlin from the west met the Russian Army advancing from the east (the two Armies split Germany in two).
“(The German soldiers) tried to cross that river to surrender to us as much as they could,” said Marshall. “Because they knew what the Russians were going to do to them. The river was covered with Germans getting across with whatever they could.”
After the war, Marshall received a degree in chemistry. His first job was making specialty pigments for cosmetics. He retired in 2003 at age 78 as the owner of a company that made specialized machinery for the lipstick industry.
By the time of his retirement, Marshall had returned to where he fought at the Battle of the Bulge three times. Thirty years after the battle, he took his wife there and he has taken two of his grandsons (both when they turned 14).
He noted that residents in Marche built a monument for the 84th Infantry Division Soldiers. The “Railsplitters” patch was also painted on side of a house.
“In Belgium, wherever you go, when they see (the Railsplitters patch), they say ‘Thank you for saving our country,” said Marshall.
And this member of the “Greatest Generation” is still getting thanked at home.