Note: This story was first posted here in Oct 2012. We repeat it here in honor of Veterans’ Day.
I lifted the frame reverently from the wall—I was holding a bit a family history and I knew it. The custom antique gold frame held ribbons, medals and a citation mounted on a green felt background. They had been awarded to my wife’s cousin Ralph almost 67 years ago. I only knew Ralph in his later years and he was a character with character. He was without a doubt one of the most interesting and honorable men I have ever met.
* * * *
Pfc. Ralph Meinking crouched low in the snow and bitter north wind. He was just a few miles from the town of Bennwihr in the far northeastern corner of France, over 4,000 miles from home sweet home Chicago. Just ahead was the 254th Infantry Regiment’s objective for the day, a giant mound of earth that would become known as Bloody Mountain. This day however, Tuesday, January 23, 1945, it was simply known on the military charts as Hill 216.
Ralph was 31 years old and he was a Conscientious Objector. During World War II, under the law, objectors had two choices — they could go into the military but serve in the medical corps or other non-combat duties, or they were required to do “alternative service” here at home that was “work of national importance.” Ralph chose to serve in the medical corps and he wore the white arm band with the bright red cross of a Combat Medic. He was assigned to the 254th Infantry Regiment, Company D and they were preparing to assault Hill 216.
Today an American flag flies 24 hours a day atop the hill at a monument erected by the Rhin -Danube Association. Known as the Sigolsheim, France Memorial, it honors the soldiers of all American units that fought alongside of French Soldiers in the First French Army. But this bitter cold January day the Germans occupied a heavily fortified position at the top of the hill. It afforded them a commanding view of the surrounding country.
At 0645 hours, 15 minutes before “H” hour, our supporting artillery began firing in preparation for the assault. Minds and bodies became tense as the troops awaited the signal to move forward. They had seen some of war but it always had been they who awaited the enemy in their defensive positions; now it was the enemy’s turn to wait in a hole—theirs to attack. At 0700 hours they silently and unseen began to move through the deep snow, their snow capes blending in perfectly with the world of white which surrounded them.
Snow Capes (Used by permission)
For a few moments after they heard the dull explosions and saw their comrades lying on the ground, they did not realize what was happening. No shell scream, no mortar whistle accompanied the bursts. Then their minds began to work once more and they recognized the barrier the crafty Germans had erected—a field of the tiny, foot-shearing Schuh Mines. The heavy snow fall of the preceding days coupled with brisk winds had perfectly hidden the mines and the footprints of the soldiers who laid them. Pfc. Ralph Meinking had his work cut out for him as the assault continued and dead and dying soldiers littered the battlefield.
Besides wreaking physical havoc on the advancing troops of the Regiment, the mines served a second purpose; the sound of them exploding alerted the German soldiers that they were under attack. Mortar fire began to pour into the minefield, quickly followed small arms fire as well as machine guns. The concentration was extremely heavy and the assaulting force began to receive even larger numbers of casualties from this shelling as well as from the Schuh Mines. Medic Meinking was working feverishly to aid as many soldiers as he was able when he felt a searing pain in his buttocks. Shrapnel from a mortar had ripped into Ralph’s backside, but he continued to work as rapidly as he could. One, two four, then it was ten other members of his unit were triaged, treated and sheltered as best as Ralph could accomplish before he himself fell to the pain and loss of blood from his wounds.
* * * *
Some thirty-five years later I had occasion to meet Ralph for the first time at one of his well-known annual birthday parties. I was a newlywed, my wife being a former Daughter of Charity as well as Ralph’s cousin. At the time I was working homicide for the Chicago Police Department. Ralph always held his parties at local German restaurants along Chicago’s Lincoln Avenue. He insisted on just one mandate for his parties—he designated where and who you sat with. To say his group of friends was eclectic would be a gross understatement. At my first party, I found myself sitting directly across from an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. My bride, the former Catholic nun sat across from an Episcopal priest. Ralph, as always, sat at the bar, peering over his brood with his cigar and double martini. Both my wife and I vowed to never miss one of his parties.
We took to inviting Ralph to our home for dinner with our family. It gave us more time to visit on a personal level. Ralph was an avowed Socialist but vehemently anti-Communist. (There’s grist for spirited conversations!) He was a faculty member at Roosevelt University. He had been regular at Chicago’s “Bughouse Square” where he often mounted a soapbox to espouse his political views. Politically, he and I were about as diametrically opposed as possible. He was both articulate and good-humored and I always looked forward to his visits… and his birthday parties.
He was self-deprecating and totally without ego or arrogance.
“Ralph, I hear from the relatives that you got a Purple Heart in World War II… what was that about?” I asked one day.
“Ahhh… I got shot in the ass kid, nothin’ to talk about,” he answered.
“You were a medic?”
“Yeah!” he laughed. “Hey, did they tell you about the time I was running from one guy to another in the dark when I suddenly realized that everyone around me was speaking German? I kept my head down, finished one more and then hightailed it back to where I thought our lines were.”
He laughed heartily at himself and took a long drag on his cigar and sip from his martini.
My mother-in-law was a favorite of his and as he aged he confided to her that he was dying.
“There won’t be anything to leave you… I wish there was.”
“Ralph,” my mother-in-law replied, “The only thing I want is your Purple Heart and ribbons.”
“Now why would anyone want that!” he replied.
Never-the-less when he passed sometime later, there was an envelope with my mother-in-law’s name on it. Inside she found not only his campaign ribbons and Purple Heart medal, but also a Silver Star medal along with the citation for “magnificent courage and outstanding gallantry under fire” during the assault on Hill 216.
Pfc. Ralph Meinking: Patriot, Conscientious Objector, Combat Medic, Silver Star recipient… and oh yes… a Socialist.
“Ahhh… I got shot in the ass kid, nothin’ to talk about.”
We miss you Ralph… you were indeed one of the most fascinating persons I have ever known and at the time I didn’t even know your whole story.
Authors note: Details of the battle for Hill 216 and snow capes picture are from the 254th Infantry Regiment’s website and are used here with the gracious permission of the webmaster of the 63rd Infantry website, Fred Clinton. In email correspondence Fred also indicated that he served in the same company with Ralph and further that the 254th Regiment received a Presidential Unit Citation for their heroic actions in the battles for Colmar, France. The regiment also received a French Croix de Guerre with palm for actions in the Colmar Pocket.