FLORENCE — Sixty-six years after he left Europe as a sergeant in the U.S. Army in World War II to return to his Alabama home, Euell Stutts had a Bronze Star pinned to his lapel by a two-star general.
Stutts received the honor Friday night during a Veterans Day dinner in Huntsville. It was an award he should have received when he was discharged, but because of the high volume of heros leaving the armed forces at that time, many were overlooked.
But the smile on Stutts’ face Saturday as he talked about the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony to honor him and other veterans proves it was worth the wait.
“They made a big deal out of it,” he said.
Stutts’ award was bestowed under a 1947 order stating all service men earning the Combat Infantryman Badge should also receive a Bronze Star for their “heroic or meritorious achievement.”
“This badge,” Stutts said, pointing to the blue and silver Combat Infantryman Badge. “This one means you were fighting nose to nose and toe to toe with the enemy.”
The Lexington native, a member of the 331st regiment of the 83rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, was drafted shortly after high school graduation. He was sent to Florida for training, but after just three weeks, training ended and the soldiers were told they were headed to Europe.
“The Germans had broken through, and they needed men over there,” Stutts said of his shortened Army training. “We were put on the train for New Jersey to board the boat to Europe.”
He recalls clearly the tumultuous boat ride to England and then on to France.
“I walked the gang plank to get on the boat and I got sick,” he said. “It was a nine-day boat ride, and I was sick for nine days.”
Once his regiment landed in France, the soldiers fought their way through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. They were under fire the entire journey.
His regiment, the 331st, lost more than 1,000 members, according to a memorial website for the group.
Stutts recalls coming to a field to find the bodies of a large number of slain American soldiers.
German troops were waiting for more to cross into their line of fire, Stutts said.
“We were told that when we heard the order, we were all to start walking and shooting at a trench,” he said. “We did. We did it as we stepped over our own men.”
But they were victorious.
“When we got to the trench, all we saw were a bunch of white flags.”
While today he recalls the stories clearly, his wife of 62 years, Gracie, said Stutts has not always been so willing to share.
“In the past two years, I’ve heard more about his service than any time before that,” she said.
She credits the Freedom Honor Flight, a special trip to Washington D.C. to honor veterans, Mr. Stutts took two years ago.
Stutts didn’t say much about his reluctance to share.
“I was there for about 18 months, and I was scared for the entire time,” he said. “I’m not ashamed to admit that.”
Most would say he had every right to be scared. At just 18-years-old, his infantry division journeyed more than 1,400 miles, most of which they were under attack.
“I was in a boat paddling across a river in Belgium when an artillery shell hit this close to me,” Stutts said motioning about a foot from his arm. “It knocked me into the cold river.”
That night he stowed away in a barn, buried in hay because he didn’t have a blanket.
Stutts carried a Browning Automatic Rifle, a BAR man as they were known. Hot meals, showers and clean uniforms were luxuries. During winter, when the snow was almost knee deep, Stutts didn’t have a blanket.
“We were told we’d get those things when we could,” he said. “For clothes, a truck would drive by and ask how many men were there. We told them how many and they’d throw that many shirts, pant and things to us.
“A lot of times the sleeves would be at my elbows and the pants would be too short, but it was the best they could do.”
The 83rd Infantry helped liberate the concentration camp at Langenstein, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Stutts said he remembers the bunks of the detained that were stacked three or four tall in the buildings.
“Many were so sick they couldn’t move,” he said.
He said bodily fluids were never cleaned.
“Whatever one did, dripped through onto the ones under them,” he said. “You were sick, just sick, when you saw something like that. It was sick.”
Memories like those are the reasons Stutts smiles so wide when he recalls the day he learned he was coming home. He was in Austria training for more combat in the Pacific Theatre.
“We were training to go to Japan,” he said. “We were told the war was winding down and we weren’t needed anymore. People tried to get me to sign up for the reserves, but I just wanted to go home.”
Now he is at home, in Florence, and has a Bronze Star to show for his bravery.
Jennifer Edwards can be reached at 256-740-5754 or jennifer.edwards@TimesDaily.com.