Since the course of history is so often observed as a complete mural, sometimes obscured are the endeavors of men who assumed the roles of individual bristles on the paint brushes of time.
And while political and military leaders may don smocks, wield brushes and paint policy, men like Medford native Robert M. Drennan survive to recall their roles on the great canvas of history. Drennan was among 300 American World War II veterans in the Boston area to be awarded a “Special Diploma” by the French government for military services rendered on their soil from the D-Day attack on June 6, 1944 until the liberation of Paris 11 months later.
Almost 56 years after the paint dried, Drennan and other Allied soldiers’ efforts were recognized by the French for, as French Consul General M. Stephan Chmelewsky said, their part in halting “`forces of near perfect evil [Axis powers].'”
The ceremony was part of an initiative by the French government to honor all Americans who fought on behalf of “France and Free People everywhere” in the two World Wars.
Drennan’s travels through northern Europe as a medical attendant in the 120th Medic Evacuation during the war are the stuff of a Hemingway novel: brisk and brutal, risky and rewarding.
“In 1988, we decided to award WWI veterans with the Legion of Honor and now it is time for the WWII veterans,” said Lauren Oxenberg, general consul Boston press attaché.
Dressed in a simple blue suit and red tie, Drennan, now 76, stepped on the deck of the USS John F. Kennedy July 15 at 08:30 military time to accept his honor.
“It’s a blessed time to be living in this world,” Drennan said of today’s relative peace. “We live in the very best country.”
Drennan’s travels through northern Europe as a medical attendant in the 120th Medic Evacuation during the war are the stuff of a Hemingway novel: brisk and brutal, risky and rewarding. In early January of 1945, Drennan was reassigned to follow the American push into France after tending to the wounded at the Battle of the Bulge “treating trench foot cases.”
“We treated wounded there for frostbite,” Drennan recalled. “It was the coldest winter in 60 years.”
He made his way through Germany, stopping in Trier for “heavy fighting,” Frankfort when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died and Buchenwald in support of the 45th Division in General George Patton’s Third Army at the same time Allied eyes first witnessed the nature of ethnic cleansing in the infamous Nazi concentration camps.
“We gave the [Holocaust victims] glucose and saline,” Drennan said. “That’s all we could do, but the prisoners must have heard that we were coming because they revolted.”
But for some of the prisoners, the arrival and freeing came too late.”I saw the lampshades made by commandant’s wives with tattoos on them,” Drennan said of the experience.
After encountering Russian Red Army and German SS dissenters, underqualified foreign medics and German outposts held by children, Drennan’s regiment crossed into Czechoslovakia as the Third Reich crumbled. While he was in Domalzine, Germany surrendered and a few days later just short miles north in the Czech town of Pilz, Drennan recounted the first order of business.
“Pilz is where Pilsner beer gets its name,” Drennan said. “The breweries weren’t bombed so we got it started up. The whole Third Army tested it out.”
Once he got home, Drennan’s father treated him to a more innocent drink, a root beer. Shortly thereafter Drennan was re-deployed for further training at Camp Polk for the ongoing war in the Pacific, but he never made it.
While he was en route, news came that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan. The war was over.
Drennan graduated from Harvard with the Class of 1946, worked with Gulf Oil and served on the Medford City Council from 1958-62, spending the second two years as deputy mayor. Now he owns his own business, Industrial Commercial Appraisal.
“I want to be retired,” Drennan said, “but when a company like Exxon calls, you have to take it.”
With the passage of time, Drennan now feels he understands his role on the historical canvas during some of the most important days of the 20th Century and savors his role as a potential painter.
“To have people listen to the story,” Drennan said, “and to listen to the facts first hand, it’s like touching history through someone that was there.”
And that role will always be remembered.
“They have never been forgotten,” Oxenberg said of the men and women who fought in the war. “And, we will never forget.”