Don Hildenbrand, left, Ken Siebe, and Joseph Cosby were reunited in Jacksonville this weekend, 63 years after the WWII veterans were separated during a night of fierce fighting against German troops in France. - Jamie Lusch

A Lasting Bond

It was a miserable January night outside the French village of Rimling, made bleaker by advancing German troops from the 559th and 257th Volks-Grenadier Divisions.

Don Hildenbrand's company was pinned down on a ridge about two miles from town, just a grenade toss from the border. Their communications line had been cut and German units had pushed past them on both flanks.

"Everybody knew something bad was going to happen, we were badly outnumbered," Hildenbrand recalled Saturday.

Sgt. Pete Petracco asked for a volunteer to report back to headquarters on the company's straits. Hildenbrand sized up the situation and even though it meant trying to elude Germans, he stepped forward.

"It was 2 o'clock in the morning and someone needed to break through," Hildenbrand explains. "It was dark, cold and snowing."

Hildenbrand trudged off into the darkness on the coldest of all European winters during the 20th century. That's the last time Joseph Cosby and Ken Siebe saw their buddy for another 55 years.

It wasn't until Hildenbrand made an appearance in a Public Broadcasting System retrospective in 1999 that Cosby, who now lives in Portland, and Siebe, residing in Pasco, Wash., learned that Hildenbrand was alive. The last official word they had, the Maryland native had been listed as missing in action.

"We thought he was dead," Cosby admits.

More than 63 years after Hildenbrand strode off into the night, the trio was reunited this weekend, at the home of Carrie McCoy, Cosby's daughter, in Jacksonville. The old soldiers marched through memory lane, sharing stories their family members had never heard.

On Saturday, they ventured to the World War II museum on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics campus in White City.

Hildenbrand, 84, Siebe, 83, and Cosby, 82, all went on to college after the War. Hildenbrand, now residing in Mountain View, Calif., eventually earned a doctorate in chemistry at the University of California-Berkeley. Siebe sold building supplies, retiring a second time when he was 80. Cosby became an educator in the David Douglas School District in east Portland.

For many who were born after the global conflict, World War II is something that happened long ago and far away. But in that day, young men were quick to take up the cause.

"I got real patriotic, jumped out of high school and couldn't wait to get my uniform on," Cosby says.

He signed up for the Advanced Specialized Training Program that might keep him off the front lines. After completing one term at Montana State University and part of one at UCLA, he was called to basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., in early 1944.

"I felt like a sheep," he says "Being herded from here to there."

He was assigned to the Sixth Army Group under Gen. Jacob L. Devers and placed in the 100th Division and 397th Regiment. Cosby, Siebe and Hildenbrand were in Company E of the 2nd Battalion. Siebe remembers the nights with temperatures falling below 40 degrees feeling colder than his native Idaho. Turns out it was good preparation for the next winter.

Hildenbrand had been in military police school in Massachusetts before he was transferred to the 100th Division. On Oct. 6, 1944, the 100th shipped out on the George Washington for Marseilles. They slept in bunks seven deep on the ship, which passed through two hurricanes crossing the Atlantic.

They moved north through the Vosges Mountains, repelling Hitler's troops, and kept moving toward Germany. It was early in 1945 when they encountered the Wehr Macht's last offensive thrust and found themselves virtually surrounded on the ridge near Rimling.

"I knew at the time, that's the last I would see of Don," recalls Siebe. "I didn't have any idea where we were, because we had marched in during the middle of night. When the sergeant said to dig in the ground was so hard, my shovel bounced off."

It had been a particularly tough few days for the native of Challis, Idaho. His eardrums were broken from the concussion of an anti-tank gun going off next to him.

"I was in a real low point," he says.

The platoon held on long enough to repulse the German onslaught and Siebe was able to get to a field hospital. But Hildenbrand's journey was just beginning.

"I tried to follow the wire as far as I could," he says. "But after a half-hour, the wire was gone and I hadn't found anything."

Then he heard a double thud and two flares lit up the night, revealing three tanks and two dozen foot soldiers. The Germans subdued Hildenbrand and in the next few hours he was joined by captured soldiers from Companies F and G.

"We were interrogated and herded into a cattle shed," he says. "They made us carry the dead and wounded Germans to a collection point. I remember having a lot of blood on my parka."

After a couple of days they were taken to Stalag 9B, where about 7,000 American and Russian prisoners of war were held. Eventually he was shipped to Berga in east Germany.

"The train stopped in Frankfurt and they let us out of the box cars," he says. "The city had been bombed heavily and I remember seeing (American) airmen hanged from lampposts. I thought 'This is not going to be a warm reception.' "

To this day he remembers his German dog tag number (27013). The Germans were developing synthetic fuel to replace the lost oil from Romanian fields, and prisoners at Berga were forced to help build tunnels.

By the time Hildenbrand, who entered the war weighing 160 pounds, was liberated on April 25, 1945, he had dropped to 90 pounds.

Cosby went on to earn a Bronze Star for saving another soldier's life at Heilbronn, where Petracco (by then a lieutenant) suffered a fatal wound.

Like many WWII vets, the trio shared relatively little of their experiences with family and friends.

"We wanted to get along with our lives," says Hildenbrand, who was awarded a Silver Star for his "foolish decision."

McCoy says her siblings discouraged her from asking probing questions about her father's war experience. Nonetheless, sneaking into her father's dresser to peek at his Purple Heart and Bronze Star gave her an appreciation of his service, she says.

"It was something sacred."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail

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