INDEPENDENCE – D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and Gen. George Patton are the stuff of legend or movies for most of us, as World War II edges further and further out of living memory.
For Steve Pribish, though, these aren’t just historical abstractions or something to contemplate while watching the Military Channel or “Saving Private Ryan,” “Patton” or “The Longest Day” on cable. Pribish, who turned 91 Friday, was in the thick of both fabled battles of the war’s European theater, and was able to shake hands and exchange words with the legendary American commander on a couple of occasions.
“He was not much bigger than you or me,” Pribish recalled in his Independence Township home early last week.
Pribish is part of the dwindling corps of World War II veterans who will be celebrated today, Veterans Day, along with those who have served in other conflicts and in peacetime. It was estimated as recently as four years ago that World War II veterans were dying at a pace of 1,000 per year; it’s not unlikely that the rate has eased off, if only because the ranks of remaining veterans have thinned so considerably.
Pribish, a retired steelworker who was a Ranger in the U.S. Army, said there are almost no World War II veterans left in his immediate vicinity.
“I have my problems now and then, but I’m in good health,” said Pribish, as he thumbed a book on World War II while sitting at his kitchen table.
Working in a coal mine in 1943, when he was 22, Pribish received a draft notice and was sent to the European front after basic training in Indiana and Kentucky.
Stationed in Stoke-on-Trent, England, he was part of reinforcements who were thrown into the D-Day maelstrom two days after the battle started June 6, 1944. The vivid portrayal of D-Day as seen in the Steven Spielberg movie “Saving Private Ryan” is basically accurate, Pribish said.
Was he frightened?
“You’d better believe it.”
After D-Day, Allied forces pushed deeper into France and then on into Germany. Pribish survived the Battle of the Bulge, a last-ditch German offensive that stretched through December 1944 and January 1945 and spanned France, Belgium and Germany. An almost unimaginably brutal conflict, it claimed 19,000 American lives, 200 British and somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,000 to 100,000 German lives.
“It was the Germans’ last stand,” Pribish said. “They didn’t do anything after that.”
On another occasion, Pribish was among a group of soldiers who were trapped in a cave in Luxembourg for six hours as the Germans attempted to draw them out. They managed to finally escape under cover of darkness. In the course of those six tense hours, Pribish buried a couple of letters he had been carrying with him in case he didn’t make it home. He wonders whether they have endured through 67 years and are still intact and undiscovered today.
Pribish was also among troops who pushed on to Berlin and its vicinity as the war ended. He remembers how he and his comrades met Russian troops there who were celebrating with accordions and vodka. They also were preoccupied with capturing German troops who were being squeezed by the two advancing armies.
“We were on one side of the river, and they were on the other side.”
The passage of time has also made him more philosophical about war and its toll. On one occasion, “a tall, skinny kid” alongside him was shot in the head, staggered and was put on a stretcher where he died. “I’ll never forget it,” he said.
He continued, “I wasn’t proud of what I did with a machine gun. It had to be done, though. (The German troops) were just like me.”