70 years later, a bottle of wine evokes memories of war

Carefully packed, the bottle of wine arrived on Ray Haagen’s porch outside Placerville in late November.

The wine is a 1939 vintage from the Chateau Lauretan vineyard in France’s Bordeaux region, with the varietal unspecified on the label.

Near the bottle’s neck, a strip of medical tape is inked with the instructions “Do Not Open Until 1955,” as if the original owners planned a long-ago reunion that never came to pass. On the label are scrawled their names: Ben Young, A.C. White, Pelman Hudson, C.W. Hansen, Ray P. Haagen – and at least a dozen more, their signatures either illegible or faded with the seven decades that have passed since they last gathered together, these young men of the U.S. Army’s 83rd Infantry Division, to promise they’d meet again one day.

They landed in Normandy 70 summers ago, only two weeks after the D-Day invasion, and they fought the Germans across France, Luxembourg and Belgium and into Germany. Together, they survived the Battle of the Bulge. Together, they served their country, helping save the world from tyranny.

Around the edge of the label, someone named Thomas A. Tench inked a warning that bad luck would come to anyone outside the group who opened the bottle.

Ray Haagen, a 93-year-old widower and retired mechanic, remembers only a few of the men whose names are on the bottle. He doesn’t remember signing it, although he did, and he doesn’t remember planning a 1955 reunion.

All he knows is that Ben Young’s son, a former newspaperman named John Young, sent him a letter last fall, saying that he couldn’t find anyone else who was still alive from the unit, a supply company for the 331st Regiment, and asking Haagen if he’d like to have the wine.

“It doesn’t belong to me, really,” said Young, 61, who lives in Montana. “Any of those guys would appreciate having it. They deserve to have it after what they went through.”

Historians debate the point, but Ray Haagen insists he remembers clearly: The 83rd Division expected to ship out from Southhampton on June 6, 1944, – D-Day – and land on Omaha Beach. His regiment had waterproofed their equipment for the landing. But the storms and high seas that delayed the earliest waves of the invasion also stranded part of the 83rd Division in Wales. As it turned out, the division postponed crossing the English Channel until June 21.

“The only reason I’m here today is that we didn’t go on D-Day,” Haagen said. “I would have been shot and killed. The Lord was looking after me. I wouldn’t have been here now.”

Some 156,000 Allied troops landed on the five Normandy beaches that morning, but fighting was bloodiest for the Americans wading ashore on Omaha Beach. In all, 1,465 Americans were killed that day with another 5,200 injured or missing.

Statistics can’t capture the carnage of the fighting they endured during World War II, and many aging soldiers don’t like to dwell on it.

“The memories are extremely painful,” said Dave Curry, 70, historian of the 83rd Infantry Division Association, whose father was a division soldier killed in December 1944.

“They don’t want to remember. The actual fighting, they won’t describe. They witnessed horrible things.”

Haagen was a kid from San Jose, the son of a delivery truck driver. At 22, he was working in a Richmond shipyard when he was drafted into the Army. At not quite 24, he was in the war, carrying a typewriter and a pistol across Northern Europe, helping load trucks and working with Ben Young to keep track of his regiment’s equipment.

“It was not that safe a job,” said John Young. “A lot of headquarters officers were killed after they got to France. There was tremendously heavy combat.”

Haagen and his buddies fought across the hedgerows and marshes of Normandy, hiding in the rubble of farmhouses and ancient towns, ambushed repeatedly by German machine guns and tanks.

“The Germans kept stalking us,” he said. “We lost our Jeep driver. I was just talking to him, and a mortar shell got him. I never knew how bad he got hit.”

They routed Germans from the walled medieval city of St. Malo – “The ground just shook with the bombing,” Haagen said – and they marched through Paris and on into Luxembourg. They endured continual shelling in the thick Hurtgen Forest, where mortars would explode in the treetops and rain shrapnel on the soldiers below. Through the bitter winter, they withstood German attacks during the Battle of the Bulge.

“It’s hard to think back to all that,” Haagen said.

The soldiers of the 83rd Division suffered almost 24,000 casualties and 3,620 combat deaths in the months between June 1944 and May 7, 1945, when Germany surrendered. For their service under ongoing German contact, all of the soldiers of the 83rd Division, including Haagen, were awarded the Bronze Star.

He came home to California after the war. He married in 1948, and he and his wife, Helen, had two children. They lived in Pinole, and he worked for 30 years as a research mechanic for Chevron in Port Richmond. After he retired in 1981, he and Helen moved to a wooded 5-acre property outside Placerville. She died of cancer in 2009. Now he lives quietly and goes to weekly men’s lunches with members of his church.

“He was a typical guy who came back and worked for years and got married and had a family and put the war behind him,” said Mike Mitchell, Haagen’s son-in-law. “It’s only recently we started getting information out of him about the war.”

The men who knew the story of the bottle of wine are gone now, casualties not of battle but of the long decades they lived. And Haagen said he doesn’t remember.

“I think some of our troops found this wine in a building,” he said. “That’s probably what happened. We’d have no way of getting wine except by troops finding it when they searched a building.”

John Young, whose father brought the bottle home with him to Pennsylvania, has a different explanation. “They were probably drunk and hanging around at the end of the war and said, ‘Let’s have a reunion in 1955,’” he said. “That’s probably what happened.”

All through his childhood, the bottle was stored in the bottom drawer of his father’s dresser.

“When I was a kid, I knew it was around,” he said. “I’d pick it up and ask about the names. They were a bunch of guys he served with when he was a supply sergeant. Everybody who signed the bottle worked with him.”

After the war, Ben Young ran a tire dealership in Lancaster, Pa., and raised two children. He died at age 90 in 2002. The bottle of wine was still in the bottom of his dresser, along with an album of photos he took during the war.

Because he didn’t know what else to do with it, John Young brought the bottle with the faded signatures on the label home with him to Butte, Mont. He read books about the war and researched his father’s service. Finally, aware that World War II veterans are dying at a rate of more than 500 each day, he stumbled across a Facebook page devoted to the 83rd Division.

“And I ran into these people who are nuts about talking about World War II,” he said. “I took a picture of the bottle and posted it on the page, and I typed in the names I could decipher. And that got the ball rolling. They did the research for me.”

That’s how he found Ray Haagen, and after an exchange of emails and phone calls, that’s how the bottle came back after 70 years’ time into the possession of one of the men of the 331st Regiment’s supply company.

He never went to any reunions, and even though he joined the American Legion, he was never one for running around to meetings. Now that he has the bottle of wine, he’s saving it as a memento of a time long ago when he was young and life was violent and uncertain – and filled with possibility.

“It’s a souvenir,” Haagen said. “Gee, whiz. I probably won’t open it.

“Maybe my son will. I’ll pass it on to him.”

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