"I don't know why I just got choked up there," he said, wiping his nose with a handkerchief. "I'm normally not that way."
I hadn't even noticed his emotion. There were no tears in his eyes. His voice didn't crack. If he hadn't mentioned it, I never would have known he missed a beat. I could tell during our hour-long interview this was the norm for him. He doesn't have a weak bone in his body.
Lynn Aas is a 94-year-old World War II veteran. He served during the Battle of the Bulge as a combat infantry rifleman and is a Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for engineering. He is an educated accountant and has a law degree. He served as a member of Legislature. He was a devoted husband and is a father to four boys. Simply put, he is inspiring.
February 18, 2016 - U.S. Army Private 1st Class (Sep.) Lynn Aas, 17th Airborne Division combat infantry rifleman, poses for a photo at the Dakota Territory Air Museum in Minot, ND. Aas served during the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his sacrifices. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Apryl Hall)
As we sat down to talk in the unheated air museum hangar, I apologized for how cold it was. It was February in Minot, North Dakota so the room temperature was uncomfortable. Wasting no time at all, Lynn replied, "I've been colder," with a knowing smile on his face. Slightly embarrassed by my own ignorance, I instantly knew it was going to be a fantastic interview.
Lynn began his story by telling me how the bombings of Pearl Harbor inspired him to leave college and enlist in the U.S. Army in order to do his part.
"I think everybody actually felt it was their duty, obligation and desire to serve their country," Lynn said. "After Pearl Harbor, the loyalty of everybody was strong and we wanted to find a solution."
Shipped off to Macon, Georgia for basic training, it was there Lynn was given the job of infantry rifleman, a job he said he became quite good at while hunting in the North Dakota countryside his entire life. Even though he was an excellent shot, he told me the thought of being a rifleman didn't thrill him.
"It wasn't easy, but I accepted what was given to me, and I don't think I ever complained to anybody about it," Lynn said. "Nobody liked combat. War is hell. I can't say I liked it, but I was an expert shot and was trained beyond my years, beyond my assignment."
By this time in the interview, I realized I had started bouncing my legs and rubbing my hands together to stay warm. That hangar felt like it was getting colder by the minute. Then Lynn began talking about the Battle of the Bulge. I instantly forgot about the temperature.
"Staying alive is something you learn real fast," Lynn said. "You learn how to duck bullets, you learn how to dodge the various artillery that came in, and you learn how to survive in deep snow. My mission became survival you might say, plus watching out for my buddies."
As Lynn recalled those brutal 45 days in combat near Bastogne, Belgium, he spoke with ease. He described how terrible the weather was with blizzard-like conditions and no shelter to protect them from it. He named each soldier he had been paired up with throughout battle. He remembered each date of each movement his unit made, something I was especially impressed with. As if I wasn't already hooked, Lynn then started on the difficult topics. The day of January 7, 1945 was particularly hard, beginning with Lynn trying to console his foxhole partner.
"He was scared to death and fearful," Lynn recalled. "He said to me, 'I know I'll be killed,' and I tried to encourage him. At 11 that morning I was laying alongside him, and I watched the artillery [men] come walking toward us in a German pattern. I said, 'Let's get out of here, it's getting too hot!' and he said, 'Any place is good enough, it isn't going to make any difference.' Well I moved, and he got killed."
Not wasting any time, Lynn jumped right in to the story of that same evening, when he had another close call.
"We were retreating and as I was moving away, the machine gun started shooting in my direction," he said. "I ducked in a trail that was made by wheels. The ground was frozen and I could see the machine gun tracers over my shoulder, but they were not reaching me."
Lynn said a soldier, who was taking cover just a few yards behind him, got up to make a run for it and was shot just above him. The soldier's lifeless body fell on the hard ground next to Lynn. For just a flash of a moment, he paused in his story and as I sat staring at him, it dawned on me. He thought he was going to lose his life that night. He thought he would be next.
"I was frozen in that position for some time," Lynn said. "I don't exactly recall everything that happened, but a big storm came and I got out of there. I did survive."
We were about 40 minutes into the interview by now and I didn't even feel the cold anymore. Listening to these stories, I realized I didn't deserve to be uncomfortable. I didn't have the right to complain about a little cold. This man was sitting in the same frigid room, reliving some of the most horrific moments anyone has to experience in a lifetime, and he was doing it with grace. The gold, heart-shaped medal hanging off his 70-year-old military jacket by a purple ribbon caught my eye. I was eager to hear that story.
"On March 25th, during the day it was rather peaceful, but come evening the Germans opened up with their artillery," Lynn remembered. "I was laying in the foxhole and one of them hit me. I could feel I was hit and the blood started flowing, so I got out of there and got back to the first aid station. They bedded me down and took care of me."
While telling the story, Lynn pointed to a small hole in the left arm of his jacket. My eyes fixated on the hole, amazed. After all this man went through, he came out of it with just that one small hole. The hole that ultimately sent him back home to safety, one of five in his 55-man unit who survived the Bulge.
We transitioned the topic to post war, but my interest didn't fade. After the war, Lynn went back to college at the University of North Dakota, but he mentioned he was having a hard time coping with what he now knows is Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. He remembers having a particularly bad day, which caused him to miss an exam at school. He approached the Dean, who had served in World War I, hoping he would understand and allow him to make up the test. No such luck.
"He looked at me and said, 'You've gone through some difficult times, but it's time to move forward,'" Lynn said, smiling as he remembered the Dean's tough words. "So I decided yeah, I have to move forward. It wasn't always easy, but that's the way it went."
I stopped the interview there. I had been searching for a chink in Lynn's armor for over an hour now. I clearly wasn't going to find it. This man, like so many others from the Greatest Generation, is the epitome of a warrior. As he sat across from me 70 years later, giving me a detailed play-by-play, I finally reached a realization. I didn't need to hear anymore. My mind was made up. At 94-years-old, this man is the strongest person I have ever met, for he survived a frozen hell.
By U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Apryl Hall
Provided through DVIDS
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