February 23, 1944 – A teenage WWII hero’s faces his first death on the front line at Anzio

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February 23, 1944 – A teenage WWII hero’s faces his first death on the front line at Anzio

The following night in shivering rain, Phil accompanied his men in his A&P platoon on his first mission to the front lines in World War II: laying down a series of booby traps and mines in “no man’s land” just a few hundred feet from German machine guns.

Phil couldn’t believe that this was the way he’d start fighting a war, but those were the cards he’d been dealt. After pushing forward, the Germans started firing magnesium flares into the pitch-black sky, where they hung for a long time while floating down on a small parachute and lighting up a large area.

Each time the Krauts shot up a massive flare, he and his men dropped to the ground and sought to maintain a low profile.

Sometimes the Germans opened up with their machine guns at the same time they launched flares. The enemy machine gun tracers were only a few feet above the ground, and in between each tracer were about a half dozen slugs.

Phil quickly learned that he could determine how close he was to the Kraut gun barrels by the tracer’s trajectory. When tracer rounds came in on a flat trajectory, he knew that he and his men were within a couple of hundred feet of a machine gun nest. Phil also quickly learned it wasn’t wise to answer their fire and give away their position. Instead, their job was to lay down mines as swiftly and efficiently as possible.

Late that first night, Private Winfield A. Doner of New York was arming a mine. The procedure involved burying the mine up to the primer, pulling the safety, and carefully sprinkling dirt or leaves over the primer. When the primer was stepped on or otherwise compressed, the mine did its dirty work.

When Private Doner pulled the safety pin, the detonator was either faulty, or Doner was careless in the excitement of the night’s mission. The mine exploded in his face, instantly killing him.

After dragging Doner’s body back to be collected and buried by the GR[1] men, the first rays of dawn began to stretch across the eastern sky.

For Phil, the morning calm became a mourning calm.

He crawled into his tent to get some sleep but could not find rest.

No matter how much he thought he’d be prepared for war, seeing up close the first of his men killed instantly changed the way he would look at things in the future.

He knew he couldn’t dwell on the loss right then, but he could not shake the memory.

Echoing in his mind were these unanswerable questions:

Why did he get killed and not me?

Why him?

Why not me?

Private Doner was the first man Phil lost, but he would not be his last—not by a long shot.

[1] GR stands for the Graves Registration company.

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