Euel Akins, a World War II 10th Mountain Division veteran, received a hero’s welcome when he visited Fort Drum for the first time April 29 to May 2. In addition to speaking with Soldiers who are currently serving in his old outfit – D Company, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment – he met with three general officers, attended two unveiling ceremonies in his honor and the division change of command ceremony. Here, he speaks with Maj. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, left, outgoing division commander, and Maj. Gen. Brian J. Mennes, incoming division commander. (Photo by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)
World War II 10th Mountain Division veteran receives hero’s welcome at Fort Drum
Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (May 3, 2019) – Euel Akins was 21 and married with three children when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in June 1944. About 150 miles away from his home in Savannah, Georgia, he trained as a heavy machine gunner for 17 weeks at Camp Blanding, Florida.
The blazing sunshine and scorching heat at the training camp were a far cry from the cold, wet Apennines Mountains of Italy where he would join the fight with the newly formed 10th Mountain Division.
“Well that’s a funny thing, because I was training where it was 100 degrees every day, and then I landed over there with the 10th Mountain Division with no mountain training,” Akins said. “You were either knee-deep in mud or knee-deep in snow, and your feet were always wet.”
This was one of the stories Akins shared with Soldiers the World War II combat veteran met when he visited Fort Drum, home of the 10th Mountain Division, for the first time, April 30 to May 2.
Akins said that all of his training before combat was on mortars or machine guns, because he didn’t want to be a rifleman.
“I didn’t like the mortar, either. That base plate … it was hard to carry. The tube was bad enough,” he said. “But I could carry a tripod on the machine gun.”
Akins said that he was able to travel home during the training because he lived so close, but he had to literally fight for it. The
training camp held boxing matches to entertain the troops, with prizes being one- or two-day passes.
Euel Akins points out members of his crew from World War II in a photo that was unveiled in the Command Group corridor of Hays Hall. (Courtesy Photo)
“I wanted a pass, so I volunteered to box,” Akins said. “I had never boxed in my life … but I was ready to fight anybody if that’s what it takes. So they matched me up with someone in my own weight (class), and it turned out he was a Golden Glove (boxer) from New York. I won my fight, but I couldn’t breathe for two or three days. He worked on my ribs and I worked on his head. But I got my pass.”
He would spend another 10 days home before moving to Fort Meade, Maryland, where he and other Soldiers would be packed like sardines into a naval vessel headed to Naples, Italy.
Akins said that the voyage lasted several days, and it was crowded and noisy in the belly of the ship. They were situated next to the engine room, where there was a continuous symphony of clanging bells and machinery.
“We were only allowed an hour on deck each day, and we would rotate up,” he said.
A lot of the Soldiers became seasick, and they quickly learned the value of securing a top bunk.
“The bunks were all close together, so when the guy on the top bunk got sick and vomited, someone below got it right in the face,” he said. “I don’t know how, but I had a top bunk.”
When they arrived, Akins was placed in a replacement depot where they waited to join units short of Soldiers. In a matter of months, roughly 5,000 Soldiers would join the 10th Mountain Division as replacements. History would show that the mountain troops suffered among the highest casualty rates in the Italian campaign.
“It was real good to get out of that replacement depot, where the reinforcements were camped out,” Akins said. “In fact, just being there, being away from home and knowing nobody, it was terrible.”
Akins linked up with D Company, 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment, and from then on, it was constant movement. Akins said that the first thing he did was throw away his heavy wool overcoat.
“Because as soon as it got wet, it weighed 50 pounds,” he said.
Akins said that with no coat or jacket, he made due with the wool shirt and wool pants he was issued.
“You’d wake up in the morning in your foxhole and the snow would cover you up,” he said. “Of course, the snow under your body would melt, and you’d be wet.”
Although he wasn’t trained for mountain warfare, Akins said that he managed with one simple rule: His NCO led the way, and Akins followed. He said that the only time he moved ahead of his sergeant was if they were pinned down and they needed him up front to return fire.
“All I had to do was keep up with him,” Akins said. “The guys in back of me had to keep up with me.”
Akins said that the unit had only separated one time when the sergeant moved out of a shell hole where they had stopped. No one but Akins had followed. When the NCO turned around after finding a good firing position, he asked Akins where everyone was. Akins was sent back to retrieve the rest of the Soldiers.
“He said, ‘Go get ’em,’ and so I had to go back down there and find them,” Akins said. “When I got there, I told them that they better get up there or wind up with a court martial.”
Akins recalled how his unit had attempted to use mules to carry gear and ammunition.
“We didn’t have the mules very long; they didn’t last,” he said. “We brought the mules out, loaded them up, but as soon as we got to a little ditch, we couldn’t get them to cross it. They couldn’t go where we were going; it was too steep.”
Back home, Akins said that his wife Doris had to find a job, because the family couldn’t live off his $21 monthly Army salary.
“She worked at the Army Medical Depot where they shipped medicine and supplies, so she always knew where I was, where the 10th Mountain Division was,” he said. “So, we had a pact that she would write me every day, but she was having a hard time writing me every day, and not getting mail from me every day. My mail was slow coming to her, but she wrote me every day. And if I didn’t get mail for a week, I’d get it all at once.”
Akins said that they never stayed long in one place until they reached the base of the Apennine Mountains where the three regiments of the division came together.
“You couldn’t move in the daytime, because they (the enemy) were all over the top of the mountains,” he said.
The plan was for the 85th and 87th Regiments to launch their attack on Mount Belvedere an hour after midnight, a day after Riva Ridge was secured.
“The next morning, we’re on top of the mountain and the Germans are sitting back there, looking the other direction and fixing their breakfast,” Akins said. “We just dropped in behind them. I don’t know how many there was killed, but we just took them by surprise. They tried to take it back twice but gave up.”
Akins said that they fought from the foxholes that the Germans had already dug, and some of the enemy captured seemed too young to fight.
“I have some pictures of them, and they’re just scared to death,” he said. “They thought we were going to hurt them, but we didn’t.”
When they entered the Po Valley, he recalled seeing vast acres of beautiful farmland.
“We would be out there with all the shelling and fighting going on, and there would be three or four little children playing,” he said. “That was the most amazing thing in the world. Then there’s this old farmer out there plowing the field and then come across an artillery shell that hadn’t gone off. He’s picking them up and stacking them by the side of the house. He had a stack of them right by the house. Some of the stupidest stuff you’d see going on.”
Akins said that when he returned home from the war, it seemed like no one outside his Family had missed him at all. However, Akins said it seemed normal, because he was just happy to be back.
“I called my boss when I got back, and I went back to work the second day I was home,” he said. “Nobody ever said, ‘how was the war?’ or ‘glad to have you home.’ Nothing.”
Welcome to Fort Drum
That wasn’t his experience at Fort Drum, where he received a hero’s welcome from everyone he met. Akins met with Soldiers from the same company he had served – D Company, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team. Capt. Jonathan De La O, D company commander, said that it was a privilege to host Akins.
“It is a very humbling and historic moment when our Soldiers can unite with veterans from past wars,” he said. “So, having someone here like Mr. Akins, who can tell us about how our division fought during World War II at Mount Belvedere, was a great experience for us.”
The following morning, Akins went to division headquarters for a personal tour with Maj. Gen. Walter E. Piatt on his last day of command with the division. He also met with the incoming division commander, Maj. Gen. Brian J. Mennes, who had invited him to attend the change of command, and U.S. Army Forces Command commander, Gen. Michael T. Garrett.
Akins was shown some of the history displayed throughout the headquarters’ hallways, and he stopped for the unveiling of something in the Command Group corridor. Akins immediately recognized the photo of himself and his crewmates, and he began talking about each of them.
Akins said that he was lucky to have completed his tour of duty without a scratch, but others in his unit were not as fortunate, to include his sergeant.
“The shrapnel went up under his chin and came out of his helmet,” he said. “He was dead before we could get to him.”
Another Soldier in the photo had survived a shrapnel blast.
“He said, ‘I’m hit, I’m hit,’” Akins recalled.
Akins said that the incoming shell had hit a tree, and that the Soldier was peppered by the debris.
When the medics arrived, the injured Soldier said in relief, “I’m going home, I’m going home.”
“What happened was he got shrapnel in the butt,” Akins said. “He thought he had the million-dollar wound, but after about three days, they just sent him back up.”
At the 10th Mountain Division change of command ceremony, Akins was introduced to roughly 600 guests in attendance.
Gen. Michael T. Garrett said that it was an honor to have this “authentic American hero” present for the event. He said that it was Soldiers like Akins who paved the way for the modern-day 10th Mountain Division.
“Euel, thanks for everything that you have done in the service of your country, and thanks for being an example of excellence for all of us,” Garrett said.
Maj. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, outgoing division commander, praised the 87th Infantry Regiment and Akins for succeeding in what others might think was an insurmountable objective.
“Imagine trying to climb a mountain with very difficult terrain in very difficult weather conditions when you have an enemy dug in on that mountain, determined to deny your advance,” he said. “No one, no one, would want to climb that mountain. The 87th and Euel Akins did that on Mount Belvedere. They truly went where others dare not go. And we are all free because they did.”
Later that day, Akins joined members of 1-87 Infantry and its command team at Memorial Park where his name is now etched alongside other distinguished 10th Mountain Division Soldiers on the brick walkway.
Akins said that he isn’t much of a public speaker, but he was thrilled to meet so many Fort Drum community members during his visit.
“Well, I thought I would be coming up here and seeing a couple people,” Akins said. I wasn’t expecting all of this. I never got this close to generals before.”