Francis X. Murphy was just 18 years old when he got married on Dec. 6, 1941. The next day, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and the United States was at war.
Murphy joined the 83rd Airdrome Squad. He went to Europe and fought in D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. To this day, the 95-year-old from Whitman remembers the bloodshed from what remains the third-deadliest battle in American history.
“You either kill them or they were going to kill you, and that’s how it was,” Murphy said bluntly.
Murphy is one of 17 World War II veterans from Massachusetts and across the country traveling to France, Luxembourg and Holland to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, a bitter fight from December 1944 to January 1945 that claimed the lives of some 19,000 Americans.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” Murphy said.
The trip was organized by Andrew Biggio, founder of Boston’s Wounded Vet Run and a U.S. Marine veteran who interviewed the World War II survivors for his book, “The Rifle.” He started a GoFundMe page thinking he’d raise about $10,000 to send “a couple of guys” back to Europe. He ended up with close to $70,000 and the ability to provide an all-expenses paid trip for 17 veterans and a family member.
About half of the veterans have been back before, including for the 50th anniversary of World War II. Others will be returning for the first time.
“This is the 75th and I think they know that for most of them in their mid- to late-90s … this is part of them closing up one of the final chapters in their lives,” Biggio said.
Some of the veterans, like 101st Airborne Division medic Al Blaney of Natick, were reluctant to share their war stories, even with their own families, until Biggio helped them open up.
Blaney admits he “got scared, a lot.”
But he had a duty, he said, “When somebody hollered ‘Doc’ — that was for a medic — I always went and did my best to take care of the men.”
The veterans were greeted by family members, veterans and United Service Organizations volunteers waving flags when they pulled up to Logan International Airport Tuesday afternoon in buses flanked by a police escort. An honor guard guided them to their gate, where they were met with balloons and a brief ceremony by Biggio, Massport officials and Secretary of Veterans Services Francisco Urena. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents, also veterans, presented their World War II brethren with challenge coins to commemorate their service. In Belgium, they’ll participate in a ceremony at the Bastogne War Museum and meet with the Belgian king.
As the service members from the Greatest Generation age and pass on, their memories of the war are fading. Colleen LaGrasso, Murphy’s granddaughter, called every day with her grandfather, who talks about the war often, “a blessing.”
To this day, the veterans remain ever-humble. Murphy said he intends to say Hail Mary’s “for the guys who were with me that never got back. They were the real heroes, not me.”
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