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World War II Vets Honor Their Own In Cactus Division

Crowds gather around the lead tank of the 1st Battalion 400th Infantry task force, and 103rd Cactus Division, after soldiers entered without resistance in Innsbruck, Austria, on May 19, 1945.
Jim Pringle

When Kansas native Torrence Riggs was only 24, his Army division, the 103rd infantry, entered southwest Germany.

"I seen a lot of soldier boys with grim faces, I'll tell you that," he says. "I had one, too."

It was 1945, and the people in Germany's Dachau concentration camp had either been worked or starved to death.

"Terrible. They were are all just white as can be, and they wore outfits that looked like pajama outfits," Riggs says. "We didn't see how they could walk. They come out, they look like walking skeletons. ... The people that lived there, they brought them in, and had them carrying their dead."

On Monday, 92-year-old Riggs and other members of the World War II unit that helped liberate the concentration camp will honor their fallen members in Gainesville, Texas. The unit was known as the Cactus Division because so many members were from the American Southwest.

James E. White has helped to organize past annual meetings with Army buddies. He's hoping the public will remember why Memorial Day is important.

"Remember it for what it means, not that it's a holiday," White says. "I can remember my Dad, he was mad as you know what when they changed it from May the 30th, which was any day of the week, and set it up for Monday, as a three-day holiday, which diminished the meaning of the holiday."

White was wounded, but considers himself lucky.

"I say it's the best thing that happened to me. They look at me like I was crazy," he says. "But a couple of days later, 90 men in my company were taken prisoner. If I'd been taken prisoner, I probably wouldn't be here today."

At a gathering on Sunday, the vets and visitors had K-rations for lunch — the Army meal-in-a-bag that was introduced during World War II. Ammie Rogers and Gregg Rogers, children of a veteran from Boston, were trying to help guests figure out the meal, hoping to re-create a "legitimate war experience."

The soldiers and their families danced and shared stories about foxholes and Germans, but there were a lot of tears, too.

"I shouldn't be like this," James Mulligan says. "I really don't have a good reason for it. I just get too emotional that's all."

Mulligan was 18 when he joined the Army. He can't forget the friends he left behind. He still takes pills to sleep. In his unit, 834 soldiers died or went missing.

Lucas Martin traveled here from Delaware. He says he wants his grandchildren — and their children — to know how civilization was saved.

"Because Hitler had plans to dominate the world, he really did," Martin says. "And we helped stop him."

A monument to honor the Cactus Division now stands just north of Gainesville, close to the Texas-Oklahoma border.

Copyright 2020 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.
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