Henry Ritter of New Freedom recently shared memories of his time in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Ritter, 92, served with Company C, 22nd Armored Engineers, Fifth Armored Division, and saw some of the worst fighting of the war.

"We were with Patton's Third Army. We were the unit that was referred to as Patton's Ghost Troops, because they never knew where we were, but we didn't know that until the war was almost over," he said.

They were part of the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, a series of fierce battles between American and German troops from Sept. 19, 1944, to February 10, 1945, in an area east of the German-Belgian border.

"We had five campaign stars for the division - all individual battles - and we were the only engineer outfit decorated with a Presidential Citation," he said. The division also received the French medal, the Croix de Guerre with the Silver Star, he said.

Those five battles included the Battle of the Bulge, known by the Germans as the Ardennes Offensive.

"The worst were the two forest battles. Forests aren't for armored divisions. They should have room to roam around," Ritter said. "When you get in a forest you can't maneuver and you're restricted to maybe one little dirt road. You take a beating, because they usually had everything zeroed in, every crossroad, so as soon as you got on them you got pushed off and it was usually a dirty job. We lost a lot of men and we went in with 15 tanks and came out with three."

After the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, the company was committed to the Battle of the Bulge, which was just getting under way.

"We had to clear the mines and build bridges, and it was a busy time for us. Where you couldn't cross a river or a stream we put the bridges up," he said. "When they would run into mine fields, it was our job to go in there and clean the mine fields. We'd be in there cleaning the mine fields and they'd be throwing mortar shells on you at the same time, so it was kind of scary."

The outfit had its share of casualties, but Ritter prefers to share other memories, saying no matter the crisis there was always something to relieve the tension, including stories of his driver, Junebug.

World War II veteran Henry Ritter, center in the second row up, can be seen with other members of Company C in the 22nd Armored Engineers Battalion with
World War II veteran Henry Ritter, center in the second row up, can be seen with other members of Company C in the 22nd Armored Engineers Battalion with the 5th Armored Division, in this photo. Photos of World War II veteran Henry Ritter, for the Weekly Record. DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS - CHRIS DUNN (Chris Dunn)

"He was a real character. This one day we were taking sporadic fire and there was this stray police dog, and he could tell before any of us when an artillery shell was coming. The dog would beat Junebug to his foxhole every time. He would pick up the dog and throw him out but the dog would come right back. I think half the outfit sat on the edge of their foxholes laughing at him fighting the dog for a spot in the hole," Ritter said.

The days were long and hard with few breaks and little sleep.

"One of the toughest things about it was the hours that we put in on the roads," he said.

They rose early, ate cold eggs from a can and hit the road by daybreak. They ate K-rations on the go, traveling until after midnight before stopping to gas up and check their vehicles, eat yet more K-rations and grab a quick nap.

"You got used to drinking the coffee half cold, no milk and no sugar, and to this day I drink it the same. Well, I like it heated but no milk and no sugar," Ritter said.

Coming home

Corporal Henry Ritter shipped out of Germany and came home to his wife, Thelma M. Ritter, in October 1945. They built a home shortly after his return from the war and are the parents of two children, Henry (Hank) Ritter Jr. and Barbara Hoernig. Their daughter and her husband live in New Freedom and their son, his wife and most of their seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren live near Richmond, Va.

The couple moved to New Freedom 14 years ago. Their ranch home is surrounded by colorful flowers, and the American flag has a place of honor on their front lawn. The interior walls are decorated with photos of their family and there are scrapbooks, put together by their granddaughter and filled with photos and other memories of their life together.

"We've been married 69 years. It's really a whole family here," Thelma Ritter said. "Our wedding picture, our children and grandchildren, our friends, those in his outfit, people we met in the army and keep in touch with. We have lost some of them and others are not in good health, but we have so many good memories of them."

'I KNEW HE WAS A KEEPER'

Henry and Thelma Ritter were married Aug. 7, 1943, in Baltimore.

"The same night we got on the train and went up to Pine Camp in Watertown, N.Y. It was way up on the border and it was cold up there," Thelma said.

The couple met when she took a job as a bookkeeper at a printing firm where he worked.

"I knew her then but she wouldn't go out with me. So finally when I went in the Army I came home, we had three dates and I went back to Pine Camp and wrote her a letter and asked her to marry me and that was it," Henry said.

"We had three dates and I knew he was a keeper. He was so handsome in his uniform," Thelma said.

He left for England in February 1944 and she returned home, where she worked as a bookkeeper for Western Maryland Railroad.

"His was called the most married outfit in the army. So many wives traveled with them it was hard finding a place to live, so I came home to Baltimore, she said.

The postal service was the only form of communication and letters were slow in arriving.

"Every day I wrote to him, but we had no way to talk to one another. I didn't know where he was or what he was doing and I only found out later he was with Patton's Ghosts," she said. "I would get a letter once in a while and would think 'Oh my goodness, he's made it this far.' We were praying for the war to be over."

Here at home, food, gasoline and clothing were rationed, women took jobs in defense plants as electricians, welders and riveters and people planted victory gardens and bought savings bonds as part of the war effort.

"You could not get butter or meat, or gasoline or nylon stockings. Everything was rationed and some things were just not available," Thelma said.

As a private in training at Camp Cook in California, Henry Ritter earned $21 a month minus $7 for insurance. A phone call home to Baltimore cost 69 cents. When he left the Army he was a corporal making $56 a month.

They have kept in touch with the friends they made during the war, have gone on vacations to the beach and on cruises as a group and visited the World War II Memorial twice, she said.

DEN OF MEMORIES

Henry and Thelma Ritter's cozy den is filled with memories gathered over their lifetime together. His battle ribbons, medals, patches and dog tags, army registration certificate and notice of classification, all framed and hanging next to a painting of an eagle and a drum Henry did before he went into the Army.

On another wall is a photo of the members of Company C, part of the 22nd Armored Engineers, Fifth Armored Division. Thelma is quick to find her husband in the photo. She smiles, asking "Wasn't he handsome in his uniform?"

On yet another wall is a black-and-white photo of the members of the U.S. Supreme Court. It is signed by the nine justices, including Sandra Day O'Connor, appointed in 1981 as the first woman to serve on the nation's highest court.

"I went with the court about the same time Sandra Day O'Connor did. She was a very down-to-earth person and I liked her very much," he said.

He pointed out other members of the Court at that time: John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, Thurgood Marshall and Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The photo was presented to Henry in 1985 when he retired from his job as a publications officer for the Court. While some may consider it a collectors item, to Ritter it's another memory in a lifetime of memories.

"All the decisions that are handed down are printed in three different forms. One is like a paperback. It is done right away and has a lot of errors in it. The next one has like a cardboard backing and the final publication is a hardback cover. It is read by many people and you still find errors in it. We were authorized to change spelling errors or errors in grammar, and we had to note the correction. The Supreme Court has its own way of saying certain things," he said. "It was the best job I ever had."