A story etched in stone
Solon Springs native George Aden, 94, got his first glimpse of the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center on Wednesday, Sept. 26. The World War II veteran walked through with his friends, Bob and Sue Zeman, stopping to point out familiar planes and equipment.
"Never seen nothing like this in quite a while," Aden said.
He shared his story of service and, when they headed out for breakfast, he left his name etched in stone. Aden is one of more than 2,000 veterans whose names are inscribed on the center's commemorative tile gallery.
It took a village to honor Aden.
"I guess you can say this isn't just a war story; it's a love story," Sue Zeman said.
Aden was drafted and joined the U.S. Army on Valentine's Day 1943. He trained in Camp McCain, Mississippi, and sailed from New York City to Liverpool, England, on the British vessel Cape Town Castle in September 1943.
"They said 100,000 soldiers shipped out that day," Aden said.
Some of his fellow infantrymen were frightened.
"I actually wanted to get away from that training, training, training," Aden said. "Be over there."
After another eight months of training in the mountains of Ireland, Aden's company, Company G, Second Infantry, was sent to France. He landed on Utah Beach in Normandy one month after the D-Day invasion.
One afternoon, he saw a light in the bushes beside the road and shot it out.
"Three or four German soldiers jumped out of the bushes. One was smiling, even. I just looked at them," Aden said. "If he had a machine gun or a gun, that would have been the end right there.
"I had my rifle with me. I didn't shoot."
As his company moved into northern France, Aden would often catch a ride on top of a Sherman tank.
"You couldn't expect to walk 20 miles and do anything at all, it got so darn tiresome," Aden said. "I probably rode about 400 miles on that tank, on top of that tank. We had the enemy on the run, so it didn't hurt me any.
"They could have shot at me, too, but if I had been scared of everything, I wouldn't have been overseas either."
Aden saw heavy fighting in northeast France.
"The bullets were flying sometimes; if you stood up, you get cut right in half," the Solon Springs man said. "I had a little trench that I built the last couple days."
He piled sand around it for safety. Aden recalled hundreds of bullets impacting the sand barrier.
"They'd drop right at my feet," he said.
The infantryman, known as rifleman overseas, developed his own safety protocol.
"If I was out in the open, I'd count 1-2-3 and I'd step aside," Aden said. "The bullet would fly by my head."
One afternoon, the Solon Springs man saw seven American soldiers who stood still get shot within 10 minutes.
"I saw so many of them. All they had to do was count to three or four," he said. "That was the end of them right there. I decided to move."
Aden was wounded in northeast France a few months before the Battle of the Bulge. A bullet hit him in the upper right leg. With the help of a soldier from Kentucky, he managed to get out.
"I could walk a few feet, then they dragged me across a frozen field for quite a ways," Aden said. "I made it back, anyhow."
He developed gangrene and was flown to a hospital in Paris. After three months of recovery, Aden returned to the United States. He took a brief furlough home and served another four months stateside until Nov. 20, 1945.
The World War II veteran still lives in Solon Springs on the land his parents bought from a cattle company for $25 an acre. In March, the land will have been in the Aden family for 100 years.
"Up until now he's been making his own firewood, mowing his own lawn, snowblowing his own driveway," Zeman said.
Less than a year ago, Zeman introduced herself to Aden in the parking lot of the Solon Springs grocery store.
"I'd seen him walk, seen him out in the community," Zeman said. "I thought he was just single, alone, thought he could use some company, and that's how that started."
The Zemans have since adopted Aden, whose only relative is a 95-year-old sister in Oregon.
"Right away, he started sharing his history, his military history. I was just ... I was in awe of what he was telling me," Zeman said.
The couple wanted to honor him for his service. The cost for a commemorative tile, however, was $300. Zeman, a retired teacher, reached out on May to Solon Springs School for help.
Donna Smith and her fourth-grade class accepted the challenge.
"Within a week, the story was written," Zeman said.
A note about Aden went out to parents the day before a fourth-grade field trip to the Bong Center. Within 24 hours, they had donated $320.
"Parents and grandparents, everybody that went on the trip to chaperone — everybody donated," said Smith, who is not teaching this year. "They heard our story; they heard it was a local community man, and the outpouring of support was overwhelming."
God put it on her heart to reach out to Aden, Zeman said, and it's been a blessing to her family.
"There are so many veterans now who are on their own, have no one to share their life with," she said. "I'm just so grateful."
A rich history may be waiting around the corner, even in a small town.
"You have to reach out to learn about it," Zeman said.