Hedgerows have always been puzzling to me because I was a tiny child during WW II and never knew what they really were. My husband was born and grew up on a large farm in western Kansas that was homesteaded by his grandfather in 1884 and sometime between 1935 and 1942 the WPA built a hedgerow on that farm. The WPA planted at ground level, unlike those in Europe. My husband said that the purpose of hedgerows on Kansas farms was to slow the wind so snow would fall on crops for moisture and came about after the awful dust storms. They were also known as shelterbelts and many have since been removed to accommodate irrigation equipment.
My late friend, Marilyn’s, husband used hedgerow for his e-mail address and when I asked what it meant, she said, “I don’t know. It has something to do with WW II.” So, that inspired me to research hedgerows. I discovered that in Europe they were ubiquitous rows of three to five feet high mounds of dirt with trees and thick underbrush growing on top, used to keep cattle confined in lieu of fences or to mark property boundaries. They had only narrow lanes between them. During WW II the German army ensconced itself on top of such hedgerows in Normandy, France and even dug tunnels completely through them in places. When I learned that, war stories told to me by my stepfather became clearer.
My stepfather, Willie Mason, joined the Army at the age of 20 on April 6, 1943. He served as a Corporal at Ft. McClelland, Alabama and Ft. Benning, Georgia and left the United States from New York on September 15, 1943 on the S. S. Samaria. He was a Sergeant in Co. G., 506th Parachute Infantry of the 101st Airborne and made 13 jumps into enemy territory during WW II. He spoke of parachuting into farm fields at night in France, not knowing where he was or how close or far from him his buddies had landed. Each man carried no less that 100 pounds of equipment. But he said the hardest part was negotiating the thick trees surrounding the farm fields. I just pictured woods. Only now do I understand that he was speaking of those infamous hedgerows in Normandy. Having seen pictures of these hedgerows now, I can only imagine the pure terror these soldiers, just young boys, had to endure to navigate their way through this maze while under tremendous and unrelenting enemy fire.
My stepfather fought in Germany, Holland, Normandy, Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge) and was with General Patton (whom he said lived up to his reputation) in Bastogne. He talked about how their feet would freeze and they would wrap them in rags to warm them while surrounded by the enemy for what seemed an eternity. He saw things, particularly in France, that disturbed him the rest of his life, but could not elaborate because tears would fill his eyes. He very rarely would even speak about the war.
He was wounded in the thigh on January 17, 1945 in Belgium and died with shrapnel from that wound still in his leg 43 years later. After time in a hospital in England, he arrived in the USA via the ship Accadia on May 6, 1945. He was awarded a Certificate of Disability for Discharge at 2nd Indiana Headquarters Wakeman Convalescent Hospital on August 24, 1945, listed as Squad Leader 653. His Continental Service was 1 year, 6 months and 19 days and his foreign service was 7 months and 2 days.
He was awarded the Purple Heart on December 23, 1945 and he gave that Purple Heart to me years before he died at the age of 65. Then I had absolutely no concept of what it represented to him, but today I am extremely proud to be the keeper of it in his honor. He was also awarded a Bronze Star. There is a German Reichs bank note for 100 marks inside the box with the Purple Heart with this written on it. “Willie loves family. Don’t forget, Willie.” He must have been terrified when he wrote and sent that brief note home to his parents.
His military records were mostly lost in a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis on July 12, 1973, destroying the major portion of records of Army personnel for the period 1912 through 1959. Alternate sources contained some information that could be used to reconstruct service record data, but complete records could not be reconstructed. Therefore, I received only two pages from that data in October 2009 as his daughter.
He always wanted to go back to Normandy, but my Mother was afraid to fly and wouldn’t go. He died on August 1, 1988 and he and Mother are buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans. I imagine it would have been great fun to walk through those Normandy hedgerows again during peaceful times and without fear. God bless our troops because knowing a combat veteran so well, I can see that war truly is hell.