On Friday, 77 years after giving his life for his country, Tech. Sgt. Arthur Countryman comes home
It has been said that soldiers don’t fight because they hate what is in front of them but because they so love that which they left behind. This was true of Countryman, who left a wife and four young children.
Georgia Donisch was nine when the life-shattering telegram arrived at her home in Plainfield, Illinois. Her father had been killed in action in the Hürtgen Forest, an offensive that would go down as one of the longest battles of World War II.
Donisch was 85 when the Army called with further news: the remains of Tech. Sgt. Arthur Countryman had been identified. Missing since November 1944, her dad was finally coming home.
The battle of Hürtgen Forest, which raged along the Belgian-German border from September 1944 to February 1945, cost more than 24,000 Americans their lives, hundreds of whom were never identified before burial or were lost in partially covered foxholes.
Today, thanks to a U.S. Department of Defense effort to return these troops to their loved ones, more than two dozen families recently have received the same phone call as Donisch. These heroes are being returned to U.S. soil to lie next to parents and wives, siblings and children — grieving families who mourned without resolution for decades.
“For families like mine, this is a grief that never quit,” Donisch says. “It’s a pain that has just carried over from one generation to the next.”
Stories of men like Countryman touch my heart. I command First Army, the unit once given with the herculean task of advancing into the forest to take the city of Aachen and break the German defenses along the heavily fortified Seigfried Line.
Born in 1907 in Plainfield, Countryman fudged his age and enlisted in the Navy at just 14. After four years of service, he returned to Plainfield to marry Loretta Hamilton, the best dance partner of his life.
As war clouds gathered over Europe, Countryman again volunteered. He was assigned to the 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, which had fought under First Army since D-Day. Donisch remembers saying a tearful goodbye to her dad as he boarded a train.
In November, Countryman’s unit was dispatched to the Hürtgen Forest. They engaged in fierce combat to secure a key supply route, but German forces had established an incredible array of minefields and artillery positions that decimated the advancing American infantrymen.
Countryman was reported killed in action on Nov. 20, 1944, along with 24 other men from his company.
The chaos of combat meant that the remains of thousands of American service members were never removed from the battlefield. There currently are more than 72,000 service members missing from WWII.
But in recent years, the Defense MIA/POW Accounting Agency has launched projects to identify missing troops. Countryman’s remains were discovered by a German woodcutter in 1947. There were remnants of an Army uniform bearing the chevrons of a Technical Sergeant but no identification tags. The remains were buried with a sterile identifier: X-5430.
Department of Defense historians use modern forensics, military history and old-fashioned detective work to identify the fallen. They often can narrow down — based on age, dental records, height, rank — just a handful of missing troops who might match with remains. They then exhume a grave and compare DNA with that of possible living family members. Of 114 sets of unidentified Hürtgen Forest remains buried as unknown, 29 have now been identified.
It has been said that soldiers don’t fight because they hate what is in front of them but because they so deeply love that which they left behind. This was true of Countryman, who left a wife and four young children. For decades they waited for news of their missing soldier, treasuring their last photo of him in his dress Army greens and the handful of letters he’d penned from the front lines.
Countryman’s parents, six siblings and two of his children died with no news. In 2000, Loretta Countryman died at the age of 88 and was buried under a gravestone bearing both her and her late husband’s names.
On Aug. 6, he will join her there.
Georgia Donish was deemed too young to attend a memorial service the family held in 1944. She weeps with relief that she will be there next week.
Lt. Gen. Antonio Aguto Jr. is the commander of First Army, headquartered at the Rock Island Arsenal. First Army mobilizes, trains, deploys and demobilizes all Army National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve forces throughout the continental United States.
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