(This is the conclusion of a series on World War II veteran Bill Simpson.)
As the Allies continued their push toward Germany in late 1944, Bill Simpson helped lead the way.
As first scout for K Company of the 157th Regiment, 45th Infantry Division, Simpson routinely found himself alone in enemy territory, walking far ahead of the rest of his unit.
“Every day was different,” said Simpson. “Sometimes I was a hundred yards out, depending on the terrain, of the second scout. Sometimes I think I went past some Germans who decided to withdraw (rather than fight) because they knew what was following me.”
Why he was assigned to the position of lead scout has remained a mystery to Simpson, although he surmises it may have had something to do with his athletic ability.
“When I was in basic training a sergeant wrote that I was the fastest one in the unit,” said Simpson. “I think somewhere they thought I could get out of the way of things if I had to.”
Simpson took great pride in the job and was always aware that other men in his company were relying on him to act as their eyes and ears.
“The fellas felt I was a good person to be up there,” said Simpson.
While there were many tension-filled moments along the way, Simpson enjoyed the relative freedom of operating on his own.
“I kind of liked it,” said Simpson. “I remember one day just walking along and thinking, ‘What a beautiful day.’ I was out there by myself and there were no Germans. It was just a magnificent day and we didn’t get fired on at all.”
Of course, those lulls in the fighting were rare. Most days, Simpson would encounter some kind of contact with the enemy.
The days that the enemy had a fearsome Tiger tank with them were usually among the worst.
For the second time in the war, Simpson had the unfortunate experience of looking down the barrel of a Tiger’s famed .88-milimeter gun.
“They were very impressive,” said Simpson. “It was so superior to the American tanks, by far. That .88 looked so big and they were so accurate.”
Once again, just as it occurred it Italy, he was fortunate that the tank crew never fired their machine gun at him.
Simpson was crossing an open field with his buddy, Fayetteville native Alvin “Bud” McMillan, when they became pinned down by heavy small arms fire. A train was slowly pulling away from a nearby station and the Germans inside were firing at them.
“It was a strange thing,” said Simpson. “It was like the Old West, getting shot at from a moving train.”
At that same moment, a Tiger began moving toward the two Americans from behind.
The friends quickly decided that they needed to fool the Germans in order to survive.
“Buddy had been grazed in the head and had blood running down his face,” said Simpson. “My knapsack had been hit and it was ripped open. So, this tank came by and we both played dead. It was about 20 yards away and Buddy was laying so they could see the blood on him and I was laying on my stomach (so they could see) the knapsack ripped open. That tank went right by without ever firing into us.”
Simpson’s luck, however, was ready to run out.
K Company crossed into Germany on Dec. 15 but the war ended for Simpson just two days later.
He was badly wounded for the third time in less than a year and this injury proved the worst of them all.
“We were dug in on the side of the hill and a shell practically hit our fox hole,” said Simpson. “(The shrapnel) took off the ball of my foot and two toes. My toes were hanging by skin. That night they had to get me off that hill. I felt so sorry, really, for the stretcher bearers. It was a tough (climb). Even though it was December and cold they were burning up by the time we got down.”
Simpson was sent back to Southern France and underwent surgery on Christmas Eve. He was given sodium pentothal and the last thing he heard was a doctor saying they would need to amputate his foot at the ankle joint.
“I woke up Christmas Day and looked down and could only see one foot,” said Simpson. “Then I started getting my vision and realized I could move my foot. Then I saw it with a big bandage.”
The doctors were also able to save his toes until a serious infection led to their amputation.
While recovering in a hospital in Aix near Marseille, doctors discovered that Simpson had contracted malaria while serving in Italy. He was given medicine but had a terrible reaction to it and was sent to the psychiatric ward.
It was soon found that he was being given one pill every four hours instead of the prescribed dosage of one pill every 24 hours. He was then released from the ward.
“The doctor said, ‘That would drive anybody up the wall. There’s nothing wrong with you,’” said Simpson.
Simpson returned to America and arrived in Charleston, S.C. on April 12, 1945, the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt died.
“I had gone a long time without hearing music or anything else on the radio,” said Simpson. “But when we got home all we heard was ‘Home on the Range.’ Somebody said that was his favorite song and they played it continually.”
During his first day in the hospital, two older women walked into Simpson’s ward and began to visit with the many wounded soldiers.
As they approached Simpson’s bed he was stunned to recognize the one woman.
“It was Helen Keller and her interpreter,” said Simpson. “She just had this pleasant expression on her face. She would put her fingers on your lips and she could read your lips. Then she would turn around to her interpreter and tap her hand like a Morse code type of thing. That is how she would carry on a conversation. It was amazing and she did this at every bed and there were about 20 of us in there.”
As the women were leaving, one of the soldiers asked the interpreter to thank Keller. He told her the visit helped cheer up the men and meant a great deal to them.
Simpson said he will never forget Keller’s reply.
“Helen replied, ‘If I’ve done so much with so little, what can you do with so much?’ It was just one of those things because a lot of us were feeling sorry for ourselves. We had amputees and everything else in that ward. It was an inspiration to us, it really was,” said Simpson.
Growing up fast
By May of 1945, Simpson had returned home to Raleigh a very different person from the one who had graduated from Broughton High School just two years earlier.
He was no longer the overly-confident kid itching to see what war was all about. He had matured into a young man who, like so many others of his generation, had grown up in a hurry.
Simpson was now among the scores of 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds who had seen and done things difficult for most people to even comprehend. The sights, sounds and smells of the battlefield would remain etched in their memories for the rest of their lives.
They had fought their nation’s powerful enemies in the most horrific war in history and emerged victorious.
But there was, of course, a price to be paid. More than 400,000 Americans sacrificed their lives during the war while another 600,000 were wounded. No one will ever know how many more suffered in silence through the decades from mental wounds inflicted by the stress of combat.
Simpson wholeheartedly considers himself among the lucky ones. He returned to North Carolina to once again feel the warm embrace of family and friends. Many of his close buddies weren’t so fortunate.
Yet, Simpson didn’t escape unscathed. Very few did.
A promising basketball prospect, the once fleet-footed guard would never get the opportunity to reach his potential on the hardwood.
Wake Forest University had offered Simpson a scholarship before the war and still wanted him to try out for the team despite his terrible foot injury.
Even N.C. State University’s legendary coach Everett Case called him and asked him to play.
“But every time I went up court my foot would give away,” said Simpson. “I ended up on crutches for weeks.”
A couple of years earlier, Simpson would have been crushed by such a turn of events. But after the war, not being able to play basketball again was merely a brief disappointment.
A war that had taken so much from so many had also bestowed a rare gift. It gave the 20-year-old Simpson an incredible appreciation for life and a whole new list of priorities. Basketball wasn’t even close to the top of that list.
Just weeks after returning home, Simpson met a pretty young girl, Edith Stephenson, at a church party. The two quickly fell in love and would end up married for more than 60 years and the parents of two children.
Simpson graduated from Wake Forest with a degree in history government. The young married couple then relocated to New York City where Simpson earned his master’s degree from Columbia University and Edith worked as a store detective at Macy’s.
The two soon moved back to Raleigh where Simpson began a long career at N.C. State, holding several administrative positions.
But it was during his first semester at Wake Forest that Simpson made the trip he’d been thinking about ever since that terrible day at a small crossroads in France.
Simpson boarded a train bound for Alliance, Ohio, to meet the parents of his best friend, George Genova, who was killed by German artillery.
The only thing Genova’s parents knew about his death was what they read in the short formatted death notice that arrived at their front door. Simpson felt they deserved to know more about the fine man their boy had become.
“I spent two days with his family,” said Simpson. “They even put me in his room. I had a feeling that maybe they would have some questions. I told them what a good soldier he was and what a pleasure it was to know him during those times. I never saw them again. I wrote them and told them how much I enjoyed seeing them.”
Simpson never experienced the terrible flashbacks or nightmares common with many veterans.
And though he went for decades without talking much about the war, the memories of those dark days were never far from his thoughts.
“They were interesting times,” said Simpson. “It really opened my eyes. I’d hate to go through it again.”