FRASER — When 98-year-old Fraser resident and World War II veteran Claude Wood was asked what it felt like to receive a Legion of Honour medal from France, he replied, “It’s 73 years too late.”
Wood and his old U.S. Army compatriot, Bernard “Ben” Wojnowski, were each honored with France’s highest honor Aug. 3 at Fraser VFW Post 6691. Wojnowski, 92, lives in Ray Township.
An estimated 55 people were in attendance for an afternoon luncheon and ceremony. Scott Metcalf, commander of the Macomb County VFW Ritual Team, spoke about France’s highest honor that can be bestowed on a foreign soldier. He said many fellow soldiers didn’t return after that chapter in world history, and some did but never lived long enough to receive the proper recognition.
Metcalf recalled a quote he once saw on a T-shirt that said, “I am not a hero, but I walked with some.”
“I walked with these two gentlemen,” Metcalf said.
Families of both Wood and Wojnowski helped pin the medals on the vets’ breasts. Wood’s reaction was stoic yet gracious. Wojnowski’s eyes welled up as he embraced his proud family members. He later admitted he has always been a sensitive guy.
Two separate journeys intertwined
Wood and Wojnowski act like they’ve known each other longer than since 1984, when they met though the Macomb County VFW Ritual Team.
Wojnowski refers to Wood as “Woody,” joking that Wood will live to be 100 and will still be in better physical shape. Wood’s memory is a vault, and he is able to recall exact dates, numbers and locations from more than a half century ago.
Wood will turn 99 Nov. 13, and Wojnowski will turn 93 a day later. The pair still takes part in 21-gun salutes, though Wojnowski’s poor trigger finger led to him taking on the role of chaplain.
The injury goes back to December 1944 — Dec. 12, to be exact.
Wojnowski, who originally wanted to be a Navy man but found himself in the Army, was part of the 5th Armored Division. He recalls his sergeant asking him to take 12 rounds of 60 mm mortar from a fellow named Jones, “who was a nervous wreck already.”
“I saw a puff of smoke, and it drove me forward,” Wojnowski said. “I tried to get up. I didn’t think I was hurting that bad then, until later, when I was on an ambulance and they were taking me back behind the scenes.
“They said they got lost and, ‘We got a man dying with a back full of shrapnel.’ I’m lookin’ down, saying, ‘Who the heck is dying?’ There’s nobody below me, (maybe) four or five men and no bandages are out. I said, ‘Hell, I’m not dyin’.”
He was hit in the back, neck and hands. He had one surgery in the field, then another operation in Paris. From there he was flown to England, where he underwent therapy and rehabilitation for four months. He missed the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge by four days.
Wood officially entered the U.S. Army June 14, 1941, at the age of 22. He was part of the 3rd Armored Division, and became a second lieutenant after the Battle of the Bulge.
He recalls being in Dessau, Germany when the division met the Russian Army at the Elbe River in the spring of 1945. Not long after, he received a furlough to come home for a period of 45 days, and then he was required to return. He was on a ship in Southampton, England, when V-E Day was declared on May 8. After being away from war for 30 days, he was called back to bounce around artillery posts until his discharge in October 1945.
He was 22 years old when he was thrust into battle, though he never put the experience in perspective until after he came home for good.
“I didn’t think I was gonna make it,” Wood said. “Being a foreign observer in the artillery, your chances are pretty slim (of staying alive).”
Many didn’t make it home, and many came home differently from when they first embarked on their military duties. Wood strung together casualty statistics of the 3rd Armored Division: 2,517 killed, more than 1,700 wounded or in accidents, and 710 missing in action.
Wojnowski spent his postwar years as an apprenticeship in the refrigeration and air conditioning fields. That was until he found his calling: being a meat cutter at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, where he spent 33 1/2 years.
“I would have worked longer, but my wife said, ‘You better retire or you’re gonna die working,’” he joked. “I look back and think about it this way: Heck, I’m gonna die someplace, why not work?”
After the war, Wood found solace in Army reunions. He enjoyed commiserating with others who had faced the same unique challenges — so much so that he went to 45 reunions over dozens of years.
The last reunion he attended was in 2010, in Columbus, Georgia.
“There’s not many of us left,” he said.
Times have changed, but memories never fade
Wojnowski empathized with his friend, Wood, and expressed some regret in terms of the timing of the French honor.
“I’m thankful — very thankful — I received (a medal),” Wojnowski said. “But like my friend here, too bad we had to wait this long. Most of the veterans at that time who served over there are gone. There’s only a few handfuls left from World War II.”
When he was drafted as a 19-year-old living off of Schoenherr Road in Utica, he certainly feared getting killed in combat. He thought most soldiers felt that way, whether they ever showed it or not. Something as incomparable as killing someone weighed on his conscience.
“(I thought), can I shoot at somebody that didn’t do me anything personally? But when you see your comrade soldiers dead and burned to when you can’t recognize them, you got to thinkin’ it’s possible,” he said. “It better be him than you.”
Wood moved to Fraser in December 1936 — before the war, before he got married or had children or grandchildren. It was before a lot of things, really.
“I watched the city grow up from a population of, I think, 900 (people) to what it is today,” Wood said. “I just watched it gradually build.”
A soft-spoken gentleman, Wood praised the current Fraser VFW for taking care of veterans and showing them respect. Wood has some clout in the Fraser VFW, too, as he was the post’s first-ever commander in 1936.
Times have changed, and it’s no longer really about “The Greatest Generation,” but instead the technological one. Both men noticeably understand the differences.
“Younger people today are growing up in peace,” Wojnowski said. “I guess they don’t really realize what a war really is. The way I see a war, a war is mankind’s inhumanity to man. You shoot my eye out, I’m gonna shoot your eye out.
“That’s what it ends up (being). It’s terrible. There should be dialogue, but oftentime, dialogue don’t go far.”