Why Memorial Day means more than parades and picnics

World War II veteran Don Dors fought in the European Theater and earned a Purple Heart. These days he resides at Santa Marta, an archdiocesan retirement community in Olathe. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JOE MCSORLEY

by Doug Weller
Special to The Leaven

OLATHE — Three weeks before the Germans surrendered, bringing World War II in Europe to an end, Don Dors was escorting enemy prisoners away from the front when a German sniper’s bullet pierced his leg.

“A tank commander yelled if there were any enemy troops out there,” recalled Dors, “and we said, ‘No, just these prisoners.’

“And with that I fell down. I thought, ‘What’s wrong?’ I looked down and blood was running out of my leg.

“I yelled for a medic and rolled into a ditch next to the tank. The commander got back in the tank and with his 50-caliber gun raked the hillside.”

When asked about it, 72 years later, the details of the event are still vivid in his mind. But at age 91, Dors rarely thinks of the war and his part in it.

It’s not one of his favorite memories.

This Memorial Day weekend, millions will remember deceased military members, family and friends by decorating graves or watching a parade.

Dors will go to the cemetery to visit his wife’s crypt; Patricia died in January 2016. But he won’t march in a parade or don an old uniform in remembrance of his service.

“The war doesn’t enter my mind much any more. You clear it out of your mind,” Dors said recently from his apartment at Santa Marta, an archdiocesan retirement community in Olathe.

“That was a part of my life I sure didn’t enjoy,” he added. “I was a kid, and I didn’t know anything about war.”

Dors was the 18-year-old only child of a Wisconsin couple who owned and operated a paint and wallpaper store. War was raging around the globe, but Dors said his teenaged self tried not to think about it.

“I had just graduated from high school — June 1944,” he said. “I was more interested in playing ball with the kids in the neighborhood than worrying about the war. But all of a sudden, that came.

“I was 18 and had to pack up and go to boot camp,” he said.

He spent the remainder of the year training in Georgia, then received a furlough to visit his parents at Christmas.

Meanwhile, the Allied troops had been steadily pushing back German forces since landing in Normandy, France, in June of 1944. But just before Christmas, the Germans launched a huge offensive, pushing the front line to the west, giving the assault its name, the Battle of the Bulge.

Dors and hundreds of his fellow soldiers were shipped out — first to England, and then across the English Channel to France — to replace the hundreds of U.S. soldiers killed or wounded in the fighting.

They rode in World War I-era boxcars to the front, then camped in tents until the Americans captured a bridge at Remagen, Germany. It was one of the few bridges crossing the Rhine River that the Germans had not demolished.

Soon, Dors and his fellow troops crossed the river in small boats, then began marching toward Berlin, the German capital.

“From there, it was strictly push as much as you could. Go. Go. Go. We were racing to Berlin, and then Eisenhower gave Berlin to the Russians, so we took a more southerly route. We were just pushing the Germans back,” Dors recalled.

Along the way, hundreds of German troops were surrendering. Dors’ platoon had gathered nearly a hundred prisoners when he and another solder were assigned to take them back away from the front.

“I still remember the road we were going up. We made a turn and there was another group of soldiers giving themselves up, with their hands up in the air,” Dors said.

That’s when the sniper felled him.

Within five minutes, he figured, a medic had his wound bandaged and had placed him on a stretcher to be sent to a first-aid station, then to an airfield to be put on a flight to a hospital in France.

“I was in a plaster cast from my toe to around my waist and down the other leg with a brace in between. And I was in that doggone thing two to three months,” he said.

Loaded onto a ship with other wounded soldiers, Dors arrived in New York and heard the news that the Germans had surrendered.

“It was over in May. If I’d lasted a little longer, I could have gone through the whole thing,” Dors said.

He then recuperated in Army hospitals in Topeka and Michigan before being discharged in September.

Dors returned to Wisconsin and joined his parents in their store. It had been a 16-month roller coaster ride.

“Everyone was anxious to go to war because of Pearl Harbor,” he said of the pulse of the country at the time he was drafted. “Patriotism was running high.”

But the reality of war was a different matter.

“I’d never held a gun in my hand until boot camp,” he said. “We were digging foxholes. There was a constant barrage from the mortars. You get to love Mother Earth and get as close to it as you can.”

Dors also knows he was among the fortunate ones.

“That was the worst I took, and I healed fine,” he said, pointing to his leg. “To this day there is just a little scar; it just missed my kneecap.”

And life went on. He met Patricia, they married and began a family, which would eventually include four children.

“In my early 30s, I got an offer from a paint company to run a new store here in Kansas City. It was a good offer, and we’ve been here ever since,” he said.

They settled in Prairie Village, where they became members of St. Ann Parish. Later, after retirement, they moved into Ascension Parish in Overland Park.

“And now this is my parish here, Santa Marta,” he said.

One frame on a wall holds medals from the war — a Purple Heart in the center, for being wounded in action. The remaining walls of his small apartment are covered with his wife’s paintings. And on a desk with a photo of her is one of his first great-grandchild.

Had he not come back from the war, none of that would exist.

“A lot of people made sacrifices, and a lot never came back,” he said quietly. “You want a war to end all wars. But you look at what’s going on now — it just gets worse and worse. It’s a sad thing. I’ve always been afraid of something starting with Russia. It’s a different world now.”

Dors said he’ll reminisce with other veterans about his experience, but otherwise, he doesn’t think about it. And even though his medals are framed on a wall, he doesn’t show them off.

“These medals — it was quite some time before I even touched them,” he said. And still today, he worries that paying them much attention sounds like he might be boastful.

“For years, nobody talked about the war,” Dors said. “I see a lot of books in the library, but I don’t need to relive it.”

But every time he reads or hears of a new conflict erupting somewhere in the world, he shakes his head.

“You think, ‘Let’s hope there’s no more of this type of fighting,’” he said, “and then you pick up the morning paper.”

Leave a Reply