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World War II Veterans Honored In Gainesville

World War II veterans from around the country gathered in Gainesville for a Memorial Day ceremony. Some of the aging soldiers trained at Camp Howze there seven decades ago. The men from the 103rd Infantry Division helped to liberate the Dachau Concentration Camp. 

Corporal Wallace E. Morgan is in a wheelchair. But he's not in it because of his age. As a prisoner of war for nine months in Germany, he endured a most brutal winter.  

"I would never talk about it," Morgan said. "Nobody knew that I'd been in the service, that I was captured, that I was wounded, nothing."

He kept silent for half a century, not even sharing with his wife. A year after she died, he needed to see a dentist, but the hygienist, Janet, saw him first. She pressed him for answers about his teeth, and why his jaw was unusually damaged. He finally gave in.

"I was beat up by a German," he said. "So she said, 'Well, everything's going to be alright.' So she cleaned my teeth, said 'Tell me about the war,' so I told her a few things. And she gave me her telephone number."

The two have been married for 15 years.

Morgan no longer keeps war secrets from his family. He even took his second wife back to where he was captured in November 1944, east of the German-Belgian border. 

"And we went right to that area," Morgan said. "And we sat there, for a week, and it was fantastic. My voice is going, but it was real nice, altogether different." 

Shirley Mulligan, 87, has been married for more than six decades to veteran James Mulligan. He has a hard time talking about his combat days, and takes pills each night to sleep. His unit, known as the Cactus Division because of the men who joined from the Southwest, lost nearly 850 soldiers. 

"The day after they got over to Germany, it was 30 inches of snow," Mulligan said. "It was a bitter, bitter cold winter. You know the survival of it, you think, being cold, but having to dig a hold, in frozen ground, to get yourself in there for the night."

Shirley and her husband have been attending these annual get-togethers since the beginning. 

"We were at the very first one, in 1965, in Lansing, Michigan," she said. "And this is the 49th, so I know all the war stories. I mean, it was so good to get together once a year. They've all deceased except my husband and I."

Lucas Martin, who traveled from Delaware, says no one's left from his regiment. Among this crowd, he's known as the historian, collecting stories for the unit's Album of Remembrance.

"It's important, I think, to continue building a legacy of the 103rd, beyond me," he said.

Zack Sigler helps, too. He's named after an uncle who was killed in World War II. And for the last decade, he's been putting online as many things as he can find related to the Cactus Division.

"My generation, and I'm in my 60s, my generation has no idea what those guys went through," Sigler said. "When they came home. They just said, 'Well, I did it because it needed to be done' ... truly the greatest generation." 

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.