Pages of history took on a new meaning Thursday (Feb. 28) when a World War II veteran visited Lincoln-Way East High School and shared some of his memories of life before, during and after the war.
“I hope you realize how lucky you are,” teacher Paul Babcock told U.S. History students as they gathered in Griffins’ Lair to hear a presentation from Babcock’s 91-year-old uncle and World War II veteran Bob Babcock.
“World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 1,200 a day,” he added. “They’re not going to be with us much longer.”
The war veteran, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, grew up on a farm in southern Wisconsin.
He recalled how his father could milk (by hand) 15 to 20 cows a day and how he had been out in the field picking corn the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
It was a Sunday, so the Babcock family was not working that day – just performing their regular chores around the farm and listening to the Bears/Packers game on the radio.
“The Bears won,” he quipped. “I think that’s the last time they beat the Packers.”
It was a pivotal day in the life of the 21-year-old farmer.
“I had no interest in joining (the Army) before Pearl Harbor,” he said. “But I knew I was going to have an interest then, whether I wanted to or not.”
Babcock was drafted, sent to Louisiana for training and then Washington before going overseas to England with the 11th Armored Division.
His father offered to contact the Army and argue he was needed on the farm, but Babcock declined.
“I think he was quite proud that I did not (take him up on his offer),” he said.
The farmer-turned soldier was assigned to drive a tank. He had never driven a tank before, but the Army assumed he could since he was used to driving field equipment.
The first time he sat behind the controls of a tank, Babcock rear-ended the tank in front of him. He was chewed out by his superior, but he continued to drive tanks throughout the war.
The World War II veteran recalled how he met Gen. George S. Patton, how he and his fellow soldiers would fill their helmets with water and bathe, wash their clothes in gasoline, heat canned food with blowtorches and pass their free time.
“You had very little time in action,” he told students, estimating 40 percent of their time was spent fighting.
One image that Babcock still carries with him from the war is what he saw when the 11th Armored Division entered Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in upper Austria.
“The skeletons were walking,” he said. “We wondered how anyone could do that to them.”
When the war ended, it took awhile to send all of the soldiers back home. Babcock spent the time playing baseball with fellow soldiers and professional athletes from the Cardinals and Yankee organizations.
“I tell my kids I was a professional baseball player,” he joked.
When he did return home, Babcock worked briefly in a factory (earning 35 cents a day) before returning to school with the intention of becoming an accountant. He married and worked as a salesman for Country Companies for 50 years.
Babcock now lives in Rockford with his wife of 65 years.
When asked what he wants students today to learn from his generation, the World War II veteran and Bronze Star recipient replied: “Try to give something to the community. Each generation has something to offer. Remember that.”