News: Veterans of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment reunite for the last time
Story by Sgt. Kissta DiGregorio
FORT BRAGG, N.C. – “For some reason, we made it back,” said Jesse Oxendine.
Saturday was the final reunion for veterans of the former World War II unit, the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. Tears came to his eyes as Oxendine relished in the memories he has made at these reunions, which have been held annually for 30 years. He also spoke of the men who never had a chance to attend such an event. “All those 18 year old boys who have been over there for 60 years…” he drifted off and took a steadying breath. “They didn’t make it back.”
Less than a dozen men were able to attend this year’s reunion due to death, illness or inability to travel, but five current Paratroopers with the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, traveled to a hotel in Charlotte to share in the momentous occasion and pay their respect to the men who made their unit as decorated and well-known as it is today.
Before dinner, a hospitality room was open for the men and their guests to sit at tables and retell stories they’ve been telling for decades. Spread along one table were photo albums full of pictures from past reunions around the country as well as photos the men took during the war. In one of Oxendine’s albums are photos from the Wobbelin concentration camp. These photos show emaciated prisoners wearing striped “pajamas”. Oxendine said when his unit took over the camp and freed the prisoners, the prisoners were so thankful they wanted to hug the soldiers, “but that was a no-no.”
At dinner that evening, candles were lit in remembrance of the veterans who had recently passed away. Everyone in the room stood silently as Taps was played, honoring the absent.
One by one, the men told a bit about themselves, why they enjoyed coming to the reunions and a bit about their experience in the war. Harold Owens, who was unable to walk to the microphone, was asked to speak. He closed his eyes and began his story at the most reasonable part: the beginning.
He spouted off the names of cities he was in, the dates he was in them and the names of the men who were there with him. His tale sounded like a well-practiced version of the official 325th GIR history; that’s because he, and the other men in attendance, made that history.
Staff Sgt. John Marenda, B Company, 1/325, said it was amazing to think that many of the awards he wears on his uniform were earned by the men in that room.
As the evening came to an end, Oxendine uncorked a 1977 bottle of apple brandy that had been set aside for just this occasion. The smell of the liquor permeated the room as he began to pour a drink for each of the vets. “We used to put this stuff in out cigarette lighters,” said Rob Bridge, another vet at the reunion.
A toast was made to the fallen men of the regiment and each veteran downed his glass. The Paratroopers were then invited to enjoy a glass of the potent concoction.
These veterans, the youngest being 84 years old, have shared in the horrors of battle, the glory of victory and the camaraderie that comes from such experiences. They have spent decades reuniting and reliving the best and the worst of their time with the regiment. As it comes to an end, it is met with mixed emotions.
“These are people you fought with, lived with and died with,” said Bridge. “We’ve spent a lot of time together, but it has to come to an end.”