by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Carmen Fleischmann
Florida National Guard Public Affairs Office
August 8, 2018
Over the last 75 years, the men of the 66th Infantry Division have reunited to reminisce about their time together fighting in World War II, to share stories of how their lives have changed since then and to recall fond memories of those brothers they lost along the way. They have taken many journeys together over the years but none as impactful as their return today to Camp Blanding Joint Training Center, the birthplace of their division, 75 years after it was created for their final reunion.
The veterans of the 66th “Black Panther” Division and their families were welcomed to the Camp Blanding Museum by post commander, Col. Matt Johnson who shared how he was personally impacted by their stories.
Upon taking command of CBJTC in 2015, Johnson would enjoy a morning run past the troop billeting areas on Quincy Avenue which just happened to be located behind what used to be the headquarters for the 66th Infantry Division.
“I remember vividly on those first mornings as I ran through the area, how I observed the concrete foundations and the red brick chimneys that still remain there today,” said Johnson. “It stirred within me the desire to learn more about the history of this post and the Soldiers and civilians who once trained and served here.”
Johnson ran his usual route again this morning to prepare for his meeting with the living legends that trained at his post all those years ago.
“I could still imagine the voices and the sounds of men rising early, preparing for another day of training at Camp Blanding. I thought of what you experienced then and what we experience today,” he said.
Johnson was also touched by the story of one of the veterans in attendance, Cyril Reshetiloff who served in Headquarters Company of 2nd Battalion, 262nd Infantry Regiment. Reshetiloff was onboard the S.S. Leopoldville, a Belgian passenger ship that was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat as it was crossing the English Channel to deliver members of the 66th to fight at the Battle of the Bulge. While Reshetiloff was able to climb his way out of the wreckage and swim to safety, the 66th Infantry Division lost 14 officers, including two battalion commanders, and 784 enlisted men in that attack.
Instead of continuing to the original battle, the Black Panther Division was assigned to fight 60,000 Germans in the pockets along the French Atlantic coast. They later relocated to Klobenz, Germany following the German surrender in May of 1945 where they conducted occupation duty and provided security at German POW camps. The men who left to continue the fight after Leopoldville consider the sacrifice made by their fallen brothers to have saved their lives.
Jerry Roetigers, President of the Panther Veterans Organization and one of the young men who trained at CBJTC and went on to fight with the 66th Infantry Division, said the PVO has boasted as many as 2,500 members since it was created in the 1960s. He recalls emotional moments when the PVO went to Europe and laid a wreath at the location where the Leopoldville was sunk, and later when they laid one at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At every location they have traveled to or event they have attended, the members of the 66th Infantry Division have been honored for their sacrifice and praised for their legacy. Their final reunion at CBJTC was no different, with dozens of Soldiers, Airmen and civilians out in the hot summer sun to pay their respects to the brave men of the Black Panther Division. A slew of WWII-era vehicles led the convoy of buses around post, bringing back memories of the unit’s time there but also providing the startling revelation of how much time has gone by.
Choking back tears, Roetigers said “None of this would have ever happened if our buddies on the Leopoldville didn’t give their lives. They gave their lives for us. It kept us out of the Battle of the Bulge, and who knows … we all might have been buried in Belgium.”
Overcome with emotion, Jerry had his grandson, also named Jerry and a veteran who served in Iraq, read an article written by his friend and previous PVO President Frank Bartino, and the current CEO of the Panther organization, Lenore Angelo, titled “Roses in December.” The heartwarming words remembers comrades that fell during the war and have passed away since then.
Since Angelo began helping with the organization in 2003, each veteran and their family members have become like family to her. “My experience with these guys has just be indescribable. They have been the love of my life, surrogate parents, and we’ve just become a great family,” she said.
Hoping to honor their loved ones that bravely served, the second, third and fourth generations who have followed the members of 66th Infantry Division, commissioned a plaque to rededicate the monument on the 75th anniversary of the unit’s creation.
“We will never forget their willingness to defend this country, their bravery in battle, nor those men who made the ultimate sacrifice. Their legacy will always be part of us and for that we are eternally grateful,” read Jerry.
Just before laying a wreath on the monument, each of the 12 Black Panther Division veterans in attendance received a 66th Infantry plaque and a CBJTC challenge coin.
As the WWII veterans noticed on their tour of Camp Blanding, while the post has changed tremendously over the years, the spirit of sacrifice and service remains the focus of the post today. During the ceremony, currently serving Florida National Guard Soldiers and Airmen stood proudly as they donned the same style “Black Panther” Division patches as the heroes who have gone before them wore when the 66th Infantry Division was activated on April 15, 1943.
“We are very proud of the 66th Infantry Division’s record in World War II and we are extremely pleased that you have come home in 2018,” said President of the CBJTC Museum Association, Dr. George Cressman.