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The Franklin News-Post
P. O. Box 250
310 Main Street, SW
Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151
Fax: 540-483-8013

A badge forgotten
Combat soldiers earn the special accolade
Click to Enlarge
Staff Photo by Charles Boothe: Silas Plybon, a World War II veteran, wears his Combat Infantryman Badge above the other medals and ribbons on his hat.

Monday, May 27, 2013

By CHARLES BOOTHE - Staff Writer

One of the most underappreciated military medals may be the Combat Infantryman Badge, and some local residents want to change that.

Silas Plybon of Rocky Mount, a World War II veteran and Bronze Star recipient, said infantrymen who see battle receive the medal, but most people probably don't recognize it.

"The ones who have it went into battle," he said, adding that he thinks the badge may not be as well known as many other combat medals.

Plybon said his neighbor, Herbert Jones, talked to him about it, also wanting to spread the word about its importance.

The badge was created during World War II for U.S. Army infantrymen and special forces who faced the enemy.

Plybon has one, earning it for his service in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Enlisting in 1944, Plybon was in the 35th Division and the following winter saw the final months and days of the war just after the Battle of the Bulge.

That battle, which started about six months after the Allies' Normandy invasion, was a surprise German offensive campaign launched through the Ardennes region of Wallonia in Belgium, France, and Luxembourg on the Western Front.

Allied troops were making their way toward Germany and the Germans launched one last effort to stop them.

The Battle of the Bulge was the deadliest for American forces during the entire war, with some 89,000 casualties, including 19,000 killed.

The battle ended on Jan. 25, 1945, with Allied forces finally victorious.

That's about the time Plybon was sent to the Western Front, continuing the advance toward Germany.

But it was sometimes rough going.

"Trees were across the roads, blown out bridges (German attempts at slowing the Allies' advance after the Battle of the Bulge)," Plybon said, adding that this made it difficult to carry out the wounded and get supplies.

Europe was also experiencing one of the coldest winters on record.

"It was bitter cold and a lot of it was just hard work to say nothing of the hazards and dangers of being shot at and shelled sometimes," he said. "Many soldiers had frostbite on their feet. By the grace of God, I was not wounded. But I learned later that I did have frostbite on my feet."

Plybon said they just kept advancing, mostly in rural areas, moving through small villages one at a time.

"Every time we would get it (a village) secure, the colonel would ride in and order us to take the next town," he said. "It was hard to get a lot of rest."

Plybon said his outfit did get 10 days off after they reached the Rhine River.

"They (military leaders) were arguing about who would cross the river first," he said.

The Rhine River was one of the last major hurdles before going to Berlin and no enemy force had crossed it for 140 years.

"The night we crossed, I have never seen so much activity in the sky," he said. "The (German) planes were trying to blow out the bridge, search lights, anti-aircraft fire. They (the Allies) had everything there -- tanks, anti-aircraft artillery. The 30th Division had already made a bridgehead."

Plybon said that after crossing the bridge, it was a matter of moving forward and they met less and less resistance.

"The bad thing with us was there would be troops in a lot of places and they would fire at us until they ran out of ammunition and then they wanted to give up," he said. "We took a lot of prisoners (and had to take care of them). They could see what was going on (that the war for Germany was lost)."

But his outfit did have one close call near the end of the war.

They were ordered to the Elbe River but faced some resistance as they approached.

German soldiers were hiding, lying down in a sugar beet field so machine gun fire was ineffective.

At one point, a German soldier almost took one of their machine gun nests by surprise, but was killed at the last second.

"He probably would have killed us all," Plybon said, "because we would not have known he had taken that nest and we would have walked right into it."

Plybon had to use mortar fire, sending shells into the sugar beet field, to finally turn the tide to the point the Germans started surrendering.

After the war was over (Victory in Europe Day was May 8, 1945), Plybon stayed on in Germany.

"Eisenhower (Gen. Dwight D., Supreme Commander of the Allied Fores) had a lot of us stay there as the army of occupation," he said.

Plybon returned in September 1945 and was discharged from the military in 1946.

In 1994, Plybon and his wife, Frances, went to Germany, and one of the places they visited was Dachau, which was a concentration camp close to Munich, where political prisoners and other people considered unfit or enemies of the state were kept.

Dachau was Germany's first concentration camp, and it is estimated that more than 31,000 people died there, according to the Holocaust Research Center.

The camp was filled with political prisoners, as well as groups like Jehovah's Witness; Gypsies, who like the Jews were classified as racially inferior; clergymen who resisted the Nazi coercion of the churches; homosexuals; and many others who had been denounced for making critical remarks against the Nazi regime.

Most of the deaths were from starvation and disease, although many were executed and some died from medical experiments, according to the center.

Dachau did not use an "extermination chamber" where prisoners were gassed, but many of the prisoners there were sent to other facilities for mass executions.

Plybon and his wife met a man from Poland on their visit.

He told them he was in a concentration camp and was lucky to survive. The Germans would work prisoners for about 30 days, he said, then herd them into a "shower," which turned out to be a gas chamber, where they died.

Plybon said the Jews and other prisoners could not fight back when they were arrested and sent to the camps because they had no weapons.

"Evil has a way of keeping its head propped up," he said. "Hitler was building a war machine and it got them out of the Depression (during the 1930s)."

That war machine was unleashed upon much of the world in the late 1930s.

Plybon said that on Memorial Day everyone should remember that "the real heroes are not talking."

All U.S. Army soldiers who are in combat are awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge.

Here is a poem related to the badge, compliments of the Silver Foxx, National Membership Office:

The Badge of Glory

Of all the medals upon our chests

From battles and wars we knew

The one admired as the very best

Is the one of infantry blue.

It's only a rifle upon a wreath

So why should it mean so much?

It is what it took to earn it

That gives it that touch.

To earn this special accolade

You faced the enemy's fire

Whether you survived or not

God dialed that one desire.

For those of us who served the cause

And brought this nation glory

It's the Combat Infantryman's Badge

That really tells the story.

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